The Llama King

Disney finds its own new groove with a dynamic Emperor

"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. 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 traditionally are based on pre-existing material--myths and fairy tales or books or historical episodes, radically refitted to wear the mouse ears. There have been exceptions, the most successful of which, The Lion King, was a tissue of archetypical narrative motifs based on no one story in particular. The Emperor's New Groove, though it didn't start out that way, is another.

Back to back: Disney uses both David Spade personas (he plays the llama above) to perfection in Emperor.
Back to back: Disney uses both David Spade personas (he plays the llama above) to perfection in Emperor.

If the film lacks a specific literary source, however, it has an unmistakable visual source: Disney has finally made an entire film in the style of Chuck Jones, the da Vinci of Warner Brothers animation. Jones was the 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 Martian, not to mention the great 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 repeatedly 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 in 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 is only there that he's legendary. Or something like that.

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 Kuzco 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, she accidentally slips Kuzco a potion that 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 is any less lovable for it.

Granting all of this, it would still be hopelessly ungrateful not to acknowledge how refreshing The Emperor's New Groove is. Considering its jerry-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 one of the Chuck Jones shorts it takes its inspiration from.

 
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