"See, there's this pre-Columbian emperor who's a spoiled brat, and he gets turned into a llama, and he meets this peasant, and the two of them become buddies and save this little village . . ."
It takes nothing away from The Emperor's New Groove, Disney's delightful new animated feature, to say that watching the producers pitch the film to a bunch of stone-faced executives might have been even more entertaining than watching the film. Reportedly, the story was originally titled Kingdom of the Sun and was a variation on The Prince and the Pauper, with a spoiled Inca prince changing places with his commoner double. But with the film well into production, Disney higher-ups ordered a massive reworking on the threat of the project being scrapped.
In desperation, the producers concocted the shape-shifting angle, and that was enough to seal the deal. Probably the moment the execs heard the word "llama," visions of December merchandising danced in their heads.
Disney's big animated releases are traditionally based on preexisting material, myths and fairy tales or books or historical episodes, radically refitted to wear the mouse ears. There have been exceptions, though, the most successful being The Lion King, which was a tissue of archetypal narrative motifs based on no one story in particular. The Emperor's New Groove, though it didn't start out that way, is another. Its only big classical debt might be to The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, in which a man is transformed into a donkey -- this may also have inspired Bottom's transformation in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Pinocchio's, as well. It's a different quadruped in New Groove, but the same basic idea.
But if the film lacks a specific literary source, it has an unmistakable visual source: Disney has finally made a whole film in the style of the da Vinci of Warner Bros. animation, Chuck Jones, creator and/or perfecter of the Looney Tunes repertory company, who made the best adventures of Bugs Bunny and Porky and Daffy, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote and Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian, not to mention the infinitely superior TV incarnations of the Grinch and Max and Cindy Lou Who. Image after image in The Emperor's New Groove suggests Jones' eye for angular, expressionistic design, and again and again the characters' faces reflect the subtlety of expression he pioneered. Most important, the sight gags employ the speed and rigorous precision timing that Jones brought to cartoon comedy.
On a verbal level, the movie also has a too-hip-for-Disney sensibility going for it: David Spade, who provides the title character's voice. Spade seemed like a two-trick pony in his Saturday Night Live days: He could do venomous snideness, and he could do breathy-voiced toadying. But in the last few years, as Dennis Finch on TV's Just Shoot Me, he's combined these two modes and developed a truly original and complex comic persona: the self-aware, condescending loser, the alpha male/pipsqueak/wiseass who's a legend in his own mind, but whose own mind is too sharp not to see that it's only there he's legendary.
Spade's character in New Groove is a golden ass named Kuzco, a teen emperor of a jungle civilization. The "groove" of the title refers to the effortless panache with which Kuzco moves through his environment. Those who inadvertently throw off this groove meet with terrible fates, until he casually fires his scheming advisor Yzma, purred by Eartha Kitt. Yzma is also a sorceress, and she responds to her downsizing by deciding to usurp the throne by poison. Instead, however, she accidentally slips Kuzco a potion which llama-nates him.
In this form, the Emperor escapes, attaching himself to the good-hearted peasant Pacha (John Goodman), whose hilltop village he had been planning to raze to build himself a resort palace. Thus, as Pacha is reluctant to help him return to imperial status, the new groove Kuzco must learn is that of considering the feelings of others.
Groan. If The Emperor's New Groove takes a wrong turn, it's in the scenes that depict this bonding, and Kuzco's subsequent change of heart. Try as they might, the Disney folks just can't resist turning on the schmaltz machine, even when, as here, they're just goofing around. Wile E. Coyote never had a change of heart. David Spade's wormy little incubus-nerd Dennis Finch doesn't have changes of heart. And neither are any less lovable for it. Granting all of this, it would still be hopelessly ungrateful not to acknowledge what a breath of fresh air The Emperor's New Groove is. Considering its jury-rigged history, it shouldn't work, but it does. Much of it -- most of it -- ranges from very funny to hilarious, and director Mark Dindal maintains a fine headlong pace; the film whips past so snappily it almost feels like a Looney Tunes short.
While Spade dominates the picture, he gets able support from the other actors. Though his role is thankless, Goodman, with his long Midwestern vowels, makes a pleasant straight man. Kitt is a strong villainess, and Patrick Warburton runs away with his scenes as her dullard henchman, a nice enough fellow who'd rather be cooking than doing dirty deeds.
Better still, New Groove had the good sense not to be a musical. It originally had a song score by Sting, but at some point in the course of production, his five tunes were discarded, though he's still heard performing something haunting under the end titles, and there's an introductory number early on, sung by Tom Jones.
Best of all, maybe, the movie manages not to effect an ersatz piety toward the culture in which it's nominally set. There's not an Andean pipe to be heard; but we do get to hear a few bars of "The Girl From Ipanema." The Emperor's New Groove
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.