Written by David Reynolds, Mark Dindal, and Chris Williams
Directed by Mark Dindal
With Disney leading its 1990s renaissance with self-serious tales accounting Greek (Hercules), Native American (Pocahontas), and Chinese (Mulan) empires, it may seem like a slight against the Disney-fication of the South American pre-Inca empire to present a through-and-through comedy. Indeed, The Emperor’s New Groove was fully prepared to be another historical drama firmly planted in the Disney canon under the title of Kingdom of the Sun, but thanks to economic troubles (Read as: really weird circumstances best covered in the documentary The Sweatbox. Look to Josh’s piece and the Mousterpiece Cinema podcast for further reading and listening.) its fate was left to the comedic stylings of Mark Dindal. It’s the sort of destiny that may have lead New Groove to the realm of films like its predecessor in Disney-proper, Dinosaur, doing well at the box office, but scorned from critical attention and far away from a beloved status.
Yet, Dindal did not allow the film its identity crisis: knowing that an outright comedy wouldn’t be enshrined in a Lion King-level–status, his team shut down any form of coherent emotional narrative in favor of comic anarchy. The result misses the highest peaks of the canon by a mile, but achieves something different, and remarkably lasting, forming itself into something Roger Ebert vehemently defended as a “cartoon.”
Kuzco (David Spade) is a selfish, universally unlikable teenage Incan emperor who must deal with day-to-day trials such as picking out a wife and line-dancing with his guards. He’s being undermined by Yzma (Eartha Kitt), something of a deflated female Skeletor, who vies for the throne by acting as incumbent while Kuzco is busy enjoying his theme song. However, Yzma is accompanied by her doofy, chiseled underling Kronk (Patrick Warburton), who serves to also deflate her villainy with his quaint observations and love of home cooking. Henchmen being henchmen, Kuzco is transformed into a llama due to Kronk failing to fulfill Yzma’s request of poison, which leads to a series of lucky circumstances placing the young man’s fate solely in the hands of a peasant, Pacha (John Goodman). Willing to help the emperor as long as he doesn’t build his summer paradise, Kuzcotopia, on the top of his hill, and always believing that the sad llama has some sense of benevolence tucked deep away, Pacha helps Kuzco find his was back to the palace to restore his place at the throne.
Of course, any sort of trials along the way back to the palace are merely stepping-stone gags meant to eventually place Kuzco and Pacha near the villains for bigger and more complicated gags. Hell, the entire journey from Pacha’s village back to the palace, which should supposedly take up the entirety of the film, is covered in a quick montage sequence near the end. Indeed, the gag following is a full admittance that the film refuses to meet our expectations of narrative coherence: as Kuzco and Pacha finally find themselves back in Yzma’s lab for the antidote, Yzma and Kronk appear out of the shadows, revealed in typical nefarious fashion: the duo were waiting for our heroes the whole time. When Kuzco openly questions this bit of cartoon logic, the villains are explicitly shown to be following Kuzco’s trail earlier; Yzma and Kronk have no answer. The animators have universally shrugged their shoulders: if we wouldn’t question this piece of narrative positioning in a typical cartoon, why expect anything different in New Groove?
The answer lies in Dindal’s team’s familiarity with animation history and the kind of artistic freedom the medium provides. In the same vein of challenging large ideas directly through the language of sci-fi or horror, New Groove being animated allows for risky playfulness generally absent from other comedic lenses. Kuzco is directly aware of the film’s structure, narrating his llama-self sulking in a storm and asking the animators to go back in time for context only for them to fall too far back, showing him as a baby. During a dramatic zoom-out, the camera is placed too far out of the city and focuses for a few seconds on a monkey eating a bug, quickly corrected by Kuzco, annoyed that the filmmakers have taken time away from telling his story. Indeed, he becomes frustrated yet again when backstory is provided regarding Pacha and his family, llama-Kuzco manually stopping the film to remind the viewers that the film is about him, demarcated with a red pen’s circle, and not about poor Pacha, whose image is scribbled out vigorously. Even with no forbearance, Kuzco is also aware of what happened to him when he was dragged away unconscious — but if we aren’t privy to Kuzco’s internal memory, what are we seeing and how does Kuzco know so much about it?
It’s a complex question that has no answer, only that the mere existence of the narrative’s chaotic positioning is also funny. Questioning anything the characters do is often funny. There’s frequently no point to the way they behave, no answer in the grander scheme of things to why a joke may be brought up, yet here they are, often laid out before us: “Here, take this. It’s a mess, but dammit, it’s funny.” If there is a sense of cohesion to this parade, it’s that Dindal’s team knows their tools. While Daffy Duck fought against the animator’s direct decisions upon his landscape in “Duck Amuck”, Kuzco fights against the animators’ rules of time and space, arguing when and where might be important to constructing his story, yet eventually giving in to the objective structure as soon as he gives in to helping Pacha. Indeed, upon realizing his grave situation, he even argues with his own narration when returning to the introductory clip, admitting his defeat.
In closing, consider The LEGO Movie, which left this writer strangely unsatisfied despite the film clearly being intended for adults as much as for children. Like New Groove, it also attempted a manic, breakneck pace with its throwaway gags, largely appealing to those craving the Tex Avery and Chuck Jones style of unmitigated humor. Yet LEGO is too obsessed with still following the rules, as if playing by a guidebook to prey upon Internet-age affectations and hitting the pop-culture notes just right is of tantamount importance. Its pacing is more of a result of keeping up with the language of rapid, Twitter-style communication, while Kuzco and company follow in the footsteps of the pioneering Marx brothers and postmodern cartoons before wading off-course into its own territory, left to rebuild the pieces of the lost Kingdom of the Sun through its “structure-be-damned” middle finger. The Emperor’s New Groove isn’t exploring completely new territory as much as it stands on the shoulders of giants, the horizon of comedy extending a little further.
— Zach Lewis