I don’t remember the experience of watching The Emperor’s New Groove for the first time, let alone anything remarkable that happened that day, but I do have a very clear memory of the day I discovered The Emperor’s New Groove’s existence. I think it was when I saw The Tigger Movie (back then I was eight years old and went to see almost every kids’ movie in theaters). I remember seeing a set of character posters for the new Disney movie to come out later that year and seeing a weird looking Llama, then, I an Incan looking fellow. The poster said his name was “Kuzco”, and looking back at the Llama, I saw the poster said “Also Kuzco”. My initial thought was of disbelief. Was Disney making a movie about Peru?
In case you don’t know, I am Peruvian. Born and raised in Lima, I have lived there for my whole life until I moved to New York about a year and a half ago. I think I’ve mentioned that on this blog at some point. I have also mentioned the first movie I ever saw in the theater was The Lion King, which became my favorite movie. Also, in case this whole “Disney Canon Project” wasn’t a big enough clue, I grew up watching and loving Disney movies. So was it that at the tender age of eight, I learned that my worlds were about to collide when the studio responsible for most of my favorite movies was going to make a movie about my very own country. In my eyes, the movie was like a form of validation. There was so little movie and television production in Peru at the time, that you couldn’t have blamed any child from believing there was something inherent to the country that rendered it unfit to be represented on any kind of visual medium. My expectations were high, and my excitement even higher.
Like all stories about childhood anticipation, this one ends with dissatisfaction. The Emperor’s New Groove was the rare animated movie that I didn’t like. Even at the age of eight, which is an age in which you like pretty much anything that is showing on television. All these years later, I understand that my reason for not liking the movie had very little to do with the quality of the film itself, but with what I was expecting to see, and the way my stupid child brain organized the world around me. In any case, I didn’t like the movie, and I think there were two reasons for this. First, because despite being produced by Disney, the movie was not the kind of “Disney Renaissance” musical that I associated with the brand. Second, because even at that age I was kind of history buff, and I knew enough about my country’s culture to know this was simply not the great movie about Peru that I was hoping for. My eight-year-old self was disappointed. Still, I can only imaged how much more heartbreaking the whole situation would have been for me if I had known more about the movie’s production history.
The Emperor’s New Groove started life as a movie called Kingdom of the Sun. It was the project Roger Allers decided to work on after he helped Disney make a fortune by directing The Lion King. Like that movie, Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to be an epic musical inspired by Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper but set in the time of the ancient Incan Empire. In order to fully replicate the success of Lion King, the producers brought in pop star Sting to write the songs following the path stablished by Elton John and Phil Collins before him. You could already see the dollar signs on everybody’s eyes when the production revealed itself to be more troubled than anyone could have expected. The movie was being constantly re-written, but kept receiving overwhelmingly negative responses from test audiences.
Management brought on Mark Dindal, who had directed Cats Don’t Dance (a little known but completely fanastic animated movie) for Warner Bros., to inject some life and comedy to the project. Allers and Dindal, however, had very different sensibilities, and were making two essentially different movies at the same time. By 1998 it was clear that the movie would not be ready for the planned summer 2000 release. The executives at Disney were furious, and incredibly close to shutting production down. Allers asked for anywhere between six months to a year to finish the movie. He was denied the extension and fired off the project. Dindal took over as lone director and rushed production to what ended up being a completely different movie from what the people involved had set out to do. This was no longer a musical (only one of Sting’s songs remained in the movie in what seems like a move to claim they didn’t completely waste the musician’s time), it was no longer inspired by The Prince and the Pauper, and it was no longer called Kingdom of the Sun.
(The story of this rather infernal and complicated production was documented by Sting’s wife Trudie Styler in a film called ‘The Sweatbox’. Because Disney is the most protective company about its image in the history of the world ever, they would never let the movie be released. However, every now and then, a copy of ‘The Sweatbox’ makes its way into YouTube. It is there right now, but you should be quick to watch it before Disney’s lawyers take it down)
That is basically how we ended up with a movie so different from the rest of the Disney Canon as The Emperor’s New Groove. It makes much more sense when you know about Dindal’s background and influences. Like Cats Don’t Dance, the influences of The Emperor’s New Groove’s lie much closer to Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons than to the Disney classics. The movie is the story of selfish emperor Kuzco (David Spade) who gets turned into a Llama by evil Yzma (Eartha Kitt), and must team up with a good-hearted peasant named Pacha (John Goodman) to come back to the palace and regain his throne becoming a nicer person in the process. The story, however, is maybe the fourth of fifth most important thing in The Emperor’s New Groove. Number one, of course, is the humor.
The movie might very well win the prize for the funniest Disney movie, which something you would be prone to do when you make a movie that is all about making the “gag” work. There are certainly a few jokes that are not that funny, but watch the scene in which Kuzco and Pacha must hide when they find themselves in the same diner as Yzma and her dumb henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton) and tell me it is not one of the funniest farces you’ve ever seen. This is an almost surreal movie where things barely make sense and the plot is more than content to stop in order to have a joke go on for a couple of minutes. And the thing about it that I didn’t realize when I was a kid is that it works. I was blinded by the fact that it wasn’t the movie I was expecting, and so, I didn’t recognize the movie’s comical genius. What’s more, having been watching Disney movies for over a year now, it comes as a refreshing breath of comic air.
At the same time as it is hilarious, though, the movie manages to earn an emotional story where so many children’s movies with lots of crazy gags fail to do. It is, in part, the fact that the journey doesn’t feel too big or too important. We know the main focus of the movie is to make us laugh, but while it is always looking for the funniest gag, the makers of The Emperor’s New Groove were also careful to always keep them within the personalities of the characters. What separates the movie from those children’s movies that are basically garbage is respect and careful treatment of the characters. If you still don’t follow, think of what differentiates the best episodes of The Simpsons from Family Guy and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
That leaves us with just one thing to talk about, and that is the movie’s depiction of my home country and its culture. On that front, my eight-year-old self wasn’t wrong to think this was not the great movie about Peru, because it is, at best, set in a fantasy version of the country that never really existed. It is clear that when the movie took the more comedic tone, it also took a much lighter concern to making a faithful representation of the Incan Empire. If it had been released with the more dramatic and serious tone that Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to have, then it maybe would have warranted itself some indignation. As The Emperor’s New Groove, trying to point out historical inaccuracies in the movie would be an intensely stupid thing to do.
It is worth noting, though, that despite things like the fact that there was never such a thing as a Tumi palace, The Emperor’s New Groove ranks pretty high as far as respectable and sensitive representations of Peru in mainstream American media go. Mostly, because it is mostly devoted to Peruvian designs and color palettes in its art direction. There is no doubt there were some people doing their homework, which is nice when the main thing you need to be on the sensitive side of American representations of the country is to not confuse Peru and Mexico. Talking about that, there is one clearly Mexican piñata in the movie, although I am fairly certain it is there for the sake of the joke and not because of neglect on the filmmakers’ part.
What else can I say, but repeat that The Emperor’s New Groove is a very funny and highly entertaining movie. It is quick, finely animated, stylish, and effective in its sweetness. It was something that took Disney out of its comfort zone and ended up paying off. At least in the creative side. If there were any justice to the world of animation, Emperor would have been a huge hit. I can only imagine what kind of awesome movies we would have gotten if the world had embraced this madcap extravaganza instead of falling head over heels for the pop cultural references of a certain ogre just one year later. That’s a story for another time, though.
Next Week: Once again, Disney tries to go after the elusive teenage audience with Atlantis: The Lost Empire.