The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin had all been major movies for Disney, but in 1994 The Lion King was a hit of otherworldly proportions. The film itself, the toys, the soundtrack, the subsequent Broadway musical … all of it more successful than anything the venerable animation studio had ever produced.
Immediately afterward, the strategy for the Mouse was clear: everything needed to be big. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules employed quantum leaps in animation technology in an effort to look even better; Mulan and Pocohantas tried to make big advances upon the regressive image of the “Disney Princess”; Tarzan employed advanced technology and also big-name musical talent in Phil Collins. Big, big, big.
And then, during the production of a film called Kingdom of the Sun, the bubble burst. The project went over budget and had disastrous scores with test audiences. Sting recorded eight songs for the film, and all of them had to be discarded as the story was changed entirely. Disney eventually released a vaguely similar film in 2000 under the title The Emperor’s New Groove. No aspect of that tale is a surprise; a handful of flops happen in that exact same way every year.
The surprise is, The Emperor’s New Groove isn’t a flop. It might be the most pure fun of any Disney movie from that period.
The original idea was to tell a variant of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper set in the ancient Incan empire. David Spade was brought in to play a haughty prince who would trade places with one of his subjects. The Disney spin on the story was that after making the switch, the real prince would be transformed into a llama, forcing the pauper to govern far more than he’d expected to and forcing the prince to depend upon other people.
More than the budget and technical problems, Disney executives believed that the story was fundamentally flawed because it had too much going on. According to Wikipedia, in addition to the prince/pauper switch and the llama transformation, there was also a romantic subplot where the llama/prince falls in love with a female llama herder (which, let’s face it, is kind of creepy). On top of that, the villainous witch Yzma also wanted to summon a dark god, capture the sun, and make herself eternally young. That’s a lot of evil plans!
Once the studio re-started the project, there was no time for sophisticated animation or all-star songs. Spade stayed on board, and still plays a haughty prince who is transformed into a llama, but that’s practically all we get from the original concept. After being turned into a pack beast by Yzma (Eartha Kitt), he befriends the downtrodden peasant Pacha (John Goodman), who leads him on a journey to get back to normal.
That might not seem like much of a story, and indeed the end product barely qualifies as a movie at 80 minutes long. The animation is spare and simple, with none of the big crowd scenes or sweeping computer-assisted vistas that previous Disney films had. So much of Spade’s dialogue is improvised that one wonders how much of a screenplay there was to work with.
And yet, that’s why this movie succeeds. Very few people, and especially myself, want to see David Spade in a remotely serious role. The man just radiates smarm, even in roles where he’s not required to be smarmy. Thus, we want to see him as the comically clueless jerk who is given his comeuppance in an even more comical fashion. That’s exactly what The Emperor’s New Groove gives us, and it doesn’t aim for anything that Spade is not perfectly suited to do.
Part of the charm of the film is that the movie is constantly flipping the expectations of the previous Disney efforts on their heads. It’s standard procedure for the comic-relief characters in Disney films to undercut the hero’s earnest heroism, but The Emperor’s New Groove instead has Patrick Warburton’s excellent work as Yzma’s crony Kronk, which almost seems to be mocking the concept of comic relief. Occasionally, the movie will even mock the idea of movies that mock themselves, having Spade insult and taunt his own irreverent voiceover narration. The film is shot through with a stubborn refusal to take anything seriously (the constant improvising was likely a big part of this).
As for the animation, there’s no question it looks bit cheap, but that also aids the comedy. For a movie as gorgeous-looking as The Lion King, it almost seems sacrilegious to laugh at the crude sidekick shenanigans. Here, the animators don’t have to worry about that, so they can go all-out with wild and hilarious slapstick. During the crazed climax this film recalls an old-school Warner Brothers effort, and that level of anarchy is a welcome departure from the more stoic, tightly controlled Disney of the 1990s.
There’s a place for the cinematic, sweeping epic Disney movies like The Lion King. However, the studio had become so addicted to making them that it forgot there’s also a place for simpler movies, and that those smaller efforts can be every bit as entertaining as their big brothers. Should the executives at Disney ever fall into that mega-budget rut again, they ought to take The Emperor’s New Groove out of the vault and watch it. They’ll have 80 minutes’ worth of modest, breezy fun.
Reviewed by Mark Young