Sometimes I really wish I could be a fly on the wall during the pitches for some of these Disney films. I like to imagine it went a little something like this:
“Hey, what if we did a sort of riches-to-rags story where a spoiled prince winds up having to rely on peasants to save him?”
“There could be something there. We’ve had a lot of success focusing on character-building story arcs lately.”
“And then the prince should be turned into a llama.”
“A llama?? I don’t think…”
“And he should be voiced by David Spade.”
“Wait, what? I don’t know if David Spade would be…”
“It’ll be brilliant. I’m gonna go write the script right now”
*5 Minutes Later*
“Okay, I’ve got it. There’s also going to be this super old lady bad guy, and a funny, dumb henchman who can talk to squirrels. Also maybe a squirrel who can make balloon animals.”
-“Whatever, just run with it. It can’t be more emotionally damaging that The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
I also imagine a lot of day-drinking was involved.
In all seriousness, I’m actually pretty fond of this movie. I just can’t begin to fathom how this was pitched as an actual Disney movie. Truth be told, not much about it feels inherently Disney. For a long time, I actually assumed it was made by DreamWorks or one of the other competing animation studios. It just doesn’t quite have that Disney magic that I’ve come to expect. Then again, plenty of other Disney films are missing that magic as well, and at least this is a good movie, so who am I to judge?
The Emperor’s New Groove follows Emperor Kuzco, a spoiled teenager who believes the entire world revolves around him (which, when you rule a country, I guess it sort of does). His so-obviously-evil-how-has-he-not-figured-it-out-yet advisor is fired, and decides to murder Kuzco so that she can assume the throne. Rather than poisoning him though, she gives him a potion that turns him into a llama, and thus the crux of the film. Kuzco winds up on the farm of a lovable and kind-hearted farmer named Pacha (whose house Kusco is planning on destroying for his own selfish means), and Kuzco must rely on Pacha to get him back to his castle so that he can reverse the spell and be turned back into his egotistical self.
Most of the film, I end up questioning poor Pacha’s trusting heart. Kuzco tells Pacha that in exchange for getting him back to his castle, he won’t tear down Pacha’s home (Kuzco lies, shocker). Then Pacha has to repeatedly save Kuzco because he’s so completely inept at surviving. Pacha is the quintessential good guy, while Kuzco you just kind of want to punch in the face. You don’t even care all that much that Izma (the aforementioned evil-looking antagonist of the film) and her bumbling sidekick Kronk are trying to kill him.
Kuzco is arguably the weak spot of the film, which is a bit sad since he’s basically the main character. To his credit, David Spade does justice to the role, delivering his lines with his signature sarcasm and humor that’s kept him in a career all these years. Still, even he can’t save the truly unlikable Kuzco. The guy is basically irredeemable for 90% of the movie, only proving that he’s not a complete jerk in the final act. In contrast, the rest of the characters are enjoyable and entertaining. Even Izma is fun, despite being the villain. She’s saddled with such a dope of a henchman that you almost feel sorry for her.
I said almost.
The fact is, the film just did too good of a job making Kuzco despicable. You hate him in the beginning because you’re supposed to, but that feeling sticks with you throughout most of the film. I like him in the end, but it’s a begrudging shift, and a part of me still thinks he’s a jerk for all the things he did. His humor is often derived from making fun of others, whereas the other characters are funny without having to be cruel (yes, even Izma). Add on to that the fact that there are no grand songs or sweeping panoramic views as a character discovers something profound about himself, and the movie just doesn’t quite feel like a Disney original. It’s still a great movie, but it’s missing the magic that earlier films like Aladdin or The Lion King had. Maybe it’s the musical element, or maybe it’s just the balance of humor with more serious moments. The Emperor’s New Groove is an entertaining movie, but it doesn’t stick with you the way other Disney films do. Even so, it’s well worth watching if you’re looking for a light-hearted movie that never delves too deeply into “dark” territory. There’s nothing wrong with a little fluffy escapism every now and then.