Directed by Mark Dindal
Written by David Reynolds, Mark Dindal, and Chris Williams
Starring David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton
One of the underlying goals of our show is to discuss the contextual issues at hand with any film we highlight. It’s impossible to attempt a halfway-intelligent discussion of the past, no matter what within the past we focus on, without deliberately acknowledging its context of our present and its original present. When we review, for example, Song of the South, it would be misleading for us not only to comment on how the film appears to us in 2013, but to focus on its initial release and subsequent re-releases, and how society reacted to it then versus now. That won’t eliminate how we feel about the actual movie, but the controversy surrounding the film is impossible to ignore. We don’t want to put on blinders to the world that responded to a Disney movie when it first opened, only focusing on what we think of it now.
Of course, focusing solely on context outside of a film can be challenging. I’ve had discussions on the podcast with Gabe and Mike where I, likely, nitpicked something in a movie, either because there’s a lack of explanation for some point or because the explanation makes no sense within the whole story. They, more often than not, would explain it away with some subtextual idea, something that you can read into what’s present, what’s on the screen. So whatever context we bring into a film, maybe from what we’ve read about a movie, what the director or writers have said, its deleted scenes, and so on, only matters so much. What’s on the screen is most important, because otherwise, there’s nothing to debate outside of it. And so it is with The Emperor’s New Groove, a Disney animated film that might’ve had a far different reputation were it not for an 85-minute documentary called The Sweatbox. Without that inadvertent expose, we might barely consider The Emperor’s New Groove as anything more than another step in Disney’s descent into animation mediocrity, at least in terms of avoiding anything remotely ambitious.
Yet last March, an intrepid soul posted The Sweatbox to Vimeo and this movie, directed by documentarian Trudie Styler, went viral on websites as wide and varied as io9 and Movies.com. Frankly, as it goes with many hot-button, rarely-seen movies in the Disney vaults–and there’s more than you might think–The Sweatbox is not some wholly damning piece of cinema. It doesn’t paint Disney Animation in the most positive light, but seeing as it’s a straightforward chronicle of the making of Kingdom of the Sun, which eventually turned into The Emperor’s New Groove, the first 30 minutes are closer to a more in-depth fluff piece you’d find on a DVD or Blu-ray release. Once Sting–Styler’s husband, and the musical force behind the film, a la Elton John and The Lion King, which was helmed by Roger Allers, who was meant to direct Kingdom of the Sun–finds out that the project he’s worked on for years is being changed entirely, the tone shifts dramatically. What was once an epic-sounding play on Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper turned into a fast, cheap, out-of-control comedy where a jerk becomes a little bit nicer by interacting with other people instead of just mocking them.
And don’t get me wrong, I ended up enjoying The Emperor’s New Groove, far more than I expected during the first 10 minutes, which lays it on very thick that Emperor Kuzco, our lead character, is…well, a character played by David Spade. If you’ve seen him in movies with the late Chris Farley, or on Saturday Night Live or on Just Shoot Me, you know exactly what character David Spade plays. And that’s pretty much who he plays in this film, except Kuzco is about 18 years old in this world. The premise of the film is so simple, but I kept waiting for Kuzco to turn into a llama, because once that happened, he might tone down his act just a bit. While he does, the movie ends up being saved by the villains, Yzma and Kronk, voiced by Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton. I don’t have the same issues with Kuzco or Pacha, the goodhearted peasant voiced by John Goodman who ends up helping Kuzco realize that he should be less selfish, that Mike did on the podcast. It doesn’t matter to me that Spade and Goodman are lily-white actors playing people in the Incan Empire, less because of the lack of racial identity and more because, as depressing as this may be, Disney’s unwillingness to accurately cast based on race is not only consistent, but it’s widespread throughout Hollywood.
Yzma and Kronk are equally not racially accurate–in that a woman of Native American, African American, and German heritage, and a white man are not much more capable to play other Incan characters–but it doesn’t matter. They are exceptionally lively characters, not only because of the animation. Most of the beats they’re put through in the script, we’ve seen before, specifically the idea of the nefarious villain who lets their dumb henchman attempt to kill the lead character, an act which we all know has to fail so the lead can go on their journey of betterment. Where Yzma and Kronk feel different from other Disney villains and cronies is a level of self-awareness that brushes the edge of meta without being aggressively winking. (This is unlike the in medias res set-up, in which Kuzco–while a llama–explains to us how the first two-thirds of the story transpire, resulting in him a sad, crying llama all by himself. The narration is very in the know, to the point where it gets distracting when Kuzco the llama butts into the movie, literally appearing in front of the frame to remind us upon who we should be focusing. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this ain’t.)
Frankly, Yzma is mostly made memorable solely by Kitt’s vocal performance; she’s a less fearsome villain than she might’ve been in the version detailed in The Sweatbox, one who’s a bit more toothless because the whole film feels low-stakes. The idea that she wants to kill Kuzco feels less disturbing and more quaint, like a powerless little old lady wishing harm on people without having the means to go through with it. Kronk, however, is a delightful creation in voice and script. Warburton’s clipped baritone has always been a charming personal quirk, as far back as Dave’s World. (Yes, I went there, not to Seinfeld, even if I am one of maybe, oh, 40 people who remember Dave’s World.) The script expands Kronk as a character, almost to the film’s detriment, in that I did have to wonder by the end of the film why a fairly well-rounded if doofy guy would ever get involved with a foul creature like Yzma. There’s an allusion at the beginning of the film to some idea that Kronk is around half the time as eye candy, which a) is weird and b) is never followed up on, so let’s assume that…never happened. Kronk is one in a long line of movie bad-guy sidekicks who are, for the most part, idiots until they reveal some hidden talent or ridiculous, hyperintelligent ability to spout off facts of some kind. It’s a tired gag that gets play here because Warburton’s clearly game for anything, and because the writers go further than just throwing in the punchline at the end. Kronk’s weird passion for cooking is the foundation for a farcical, opening-and-closing-doors sequence halfway through the film, thus making the humor fuller, richer in a way.
There are enough parts to The Emperor’s New Groove to grasp onto that I’ll forgive the film its flaws, such as the cheap animation–likely a product of the original version of the film costing so much that a redo couldn’t cost nearly as much. And David Spade…well, I don’t know that he wore me down so much as I began to tolerate his snideness here. It does help that you don’t have to look at him; the animated attitude on display is more tolerable than his overly smug visage. As much as the fast pace eventually wore on me–there are a number of over-the-top setpieces, all attempting to outdo each other in a Looney Tunes kind of way–it also allows The Emperor’s New Groove to move so quickly that it’d be easy to ignore any problems as they whiz by you. As always, I’m glad to have seen a Disney movie for the first time; thankfully, The Emperor’s New Groove, the movie we can actually latch onto, isn’t half-bad. But, oh, what could have been. To dream of Kingdom of the Sun may be counterproductive, but knowing the alternative makes it awfully difficult.