In this animated comedy from the folks at Disney, the vain and cocky Emperor Kuzco is a very busy man. Besides maintaining his "groove", and firing his suspicious administrator, Yzma; he's also planning to build a new waterpark just for himself for his birthday. However, this means destroying one of the villages in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Yzma is hatching a plan to get revenge and usurp the throne. But, in a botched assassination courtesy of Yzma's right-hand man, Kronk, Kuzco is magically transformed into a llama. Now, Kuzco finds himself the property of Pacha, a lowly llama herder whose home is ground zero for the water park. Upon discovering the llama's true self, Pacha offers to help resolve the Emperor's problem and regain his throne, only if he promises to move his water park. Written by
Apparently there was this thing that happened in 1994 called "The Disney Renaissance". The Lion King brought back "Classic Disney" or some such nonsense. The implication is that mega-hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin were not good enough. Nope, it was the Lion King which restored dignity to the studio. Dignity which they then squandered on garbage like Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. On top of this Dreamworks Animation was gearing up to be a serious competitor while Pixar was hogging all of the glory.
Such was the success of the Lion King that director Roger Allers was given permission to indulge himself in a vanity piece called Kingdom of the Sun. It was to be an epic, mystical spin on the Prince and the Pauper set in Peru during the time of the Incas as well as a romantic comedy musical with serious weight to the mythology.
Honestly, this sounds like the kind of movie that I would have hated. The Disney suits felt the same way, though were even less kind when it came to communicating that opinion to the creative team. The development and production of Kingdom of the Sun dragged on for years with innumerable clashes, arguments, and differences between Allers and Disney. None of the moneymen liked where the film was going. A half-finished version was screened and rejected. Production was shut down. Allers was off the project and Mark Dindal was brought in to replace him. In the process Dinal completely overhauled the movie and changed it into something quite different. And thus Kingdom of the Sun gave birth to The Emperor's New Groove. A serious, mystical epic became an archaic slapstick comedy more in the vein of Looney Tunes than Lion King. And it's all the better for it.
Throughout this shambolic development only three people remained constant: David Spade as the spoiled emperor Kuzco, Eartha Kitt as the conniving Yzma, and Sting, who would provide the soundtrack. The latter ended up only doing a single song "My Funny Friend and Me", but it did get an Academy Award nomination (which it lost to Bob Dylan). Sting's wife Trudi Styler was even commissioned to make a documentary on the production of Kingdom of the Sun and covered every torturous twist during those terrible times. What was supposed to be just an ordinary "making-of" became a rather notorious stand-alone documentary called "The Sweatbox" which was such a damning and difficult portrait of the House of Mouse that they have never allowed it to be officially released (and barely acknowledge its existence).
Make no mistake, The Emperor's New Groove did not have an easy journey from concept to screen. Far, far from it.
When the trailer screened in early 2001 in the UK I was immediately dismissive. I had become tired and jaded of the setting and tone. With The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado in the recent past I was not in the mood for more of the same. I was loudly vocal about how awful the trailer looked. But then something very odd happened...Kuzco turned into a Llama and it became surreal and hyper. I remember squinting and saying "Uh...what IS this?" I'd much rather take a chance on an odd curiosity than a self-proclaimed epic.
The final story sees Emperor Kuzco betrayed by his assistant Yzma who plots to kill him in revenge for being fired. Her lunkhead servant Kronk (perfectly voiced by Patrick Warburton) mixes up the poison potion and instead transforms Kuzco into a Llama. Discarded into the nearby jungle Kuzco teams up with good-natured peasant Pacha, whom he earlier condemned to homelessness. They make a deal - help Kuzco turn back to human and Pacha can keep his community. Together they fight their way through the wilderness back to the palace with Yzma and Kronk close behind, determined to finish the job.
TENG moves so fast it will make your head spin. This movie barely takes a breath, so much so that I don't think that the opening and closing titles even lasted a single second. It's just one wonderfully overblown set-piece followed by another. You'll be grinning so hard your face will be in agony. I can't call it anything other than my absolute favorite Disney animation (Big Hero 6 coming in at a close second) but I'm sort of annoyed that it gets such a bad reputation and that its often forgotten.
Released in the US in late 2000 the movie received little fanfare and had a horrible dated marketing campaign that was stuck in the mid- 90s. While most Disney movies are shoved in our face and pretty much demand that we go see them this one seems to end up merely being discovered by growing cult of fans. I guess that makes a unique and controversial movie all the more special.
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