Monday, February 22, 2010

#40: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

Ah, we finally get to "Groove." Of the few Disney films I'd seen before embarking on this crazed mission, this was the only one of them that really impacted me, and that I could say I really loved. But movies like this don't just happen; in fact, "Groove" has probably the most interesting behind-the-scenes story of any Disney film, which I will try to briefly relay here. At the start, it couldn't have been further from what the final product would be; "Lion King" director Roger Allers wanted to do another serious epic story, and since his movie was the studio's biggest cash cow in decades, Disney gave him some rope. "Kingdom of the Sun" was basically like 'Prince and the Pauper' as the emperor and a peasant switch places, however the royal sorceress finds out, turns the real emperor into a llama and keeps the peasant under lock and key. She, meanwhile, has an evil scheme to extinguish the sun to preserve her beauty. Yeah, kinda strange sounding. Disney thought so too, but so did "Lion King" during its production stage, so they let Allers be. However a year or two into production, no test screenings were really working, and Disney began to get irate with this project. Eventually they brought in another director Mark Dindal, who did the light-hearted Warner Bros. film "Cats Don't Dance." Suffice to say, Dindal and Allers didn't quite agree on the direction of the project; the animators basically split up into two camps making two different movies, Allers still dramatic, while Dindal focusing on comedy. The deal-breaker occurred with the new test-screenings; while there was dead-silence during Allers' segments, audiences loved Dindal's. So Disney shoved Allers out on his ass, told Dindal to just finish the damn movie quickly, the team scrambled together, and we eventually got "The Emperor's New Groove." Now there's no telling what "Kingdom of the Sun" could have been if the executives hadn't have gotten cold feet about it. It could have been great, and a lot of animators hold a grudge against "Groove" for this reason. But you know, if this is what we got in its place, buddy, you could've done a WHOLE lot worse.
What started as a classic Aesop tale ended up being a screwy buddy comedy. Emperor Kuzco is a real spoiled brat, leader of an ambiguous Inca-eqsue civilization, who wants to destroy well-meaning peasant Pacha's village for his own summer home. Meanwhile, Yzma, adviser to the emperor, wishes to rule the kingdom; after she is fired, she and her henchman Kronk vow to murder the emperor and take his place. Unfortunately, a mix-up in magic potions turns Kuzco into a llama, and Kronk's half-assed disposal of said body leaves the now llama-fied Kuzco in the hands of Pacha, who agrees to help the emperor only if he agrees to spare his village. The two must learn to work together to get back to the palace, and also avoid Yzma and Kronk, who are on the hunt for the emperor once Yzma learns he might still be alive.
Watching this movie again in context of the studio's previous thirty-nine, it's become even more evident just how much of a step into uncharted territory this was for Disney. The fast paced jokes, total irreverence and embracing of irony, lack of traditional Disney elements like songs and sidekicks; this is nothing the way the studio had ever made their movies. It has more to thank the classic Warner Bros. shorts than anything out of Disney (makes sense, considering its director). "Groove" is still the funniest of the Disney films by far; while a few jokes don't quite hold up after so many viewings, far more of them are still oh-so good. This is helped by the amazing vocal performances, with everyone giving their all to their characters, be it David Spade's unwavering arrogance, John Goodman's dogged compassion, Eartha Kitt's villainous scheming, and best of all Patrick Warburton's quiet deadpan deliveries as Kronk. And that's it by the way; "Groove" also benefits from an economical cast of four, with pretty much no other side characters apart from Pacha's family. As such, we spend a lot of time with each character and begin to like them all, loving every moment they're on screen.
Another great thing about the film is its pacing. A lot of your Disney Renaissance stories have to set up a lot of expository ground, and at times it can be up to the thirty-minute mark before the film really starts moving. Here, we get rolling right off the bat, with Kuzco becoming a llama pretty early on. This is not done in sacrifice of establishing our characters though; everything is done smoothly and concisely, and most of all humorously. The movie is like a non-stop barrage of jokes, whether it be from character interactions, wordplay, callbacks, or calling out the shortcoming and stereotypes of the film itself. The most genius bit of the film is the mad dash back to the palace as we see our two teams as symbols on a map running with dotted lines trailing behind them. We then see Yzma and Kronk running who happen to notice these lines on the road below them and are quite confused by it. It's only made even better later on when they hit a sizable snag and Kuzco and Pacha get to the lab first, only to find they're too late. When questioned how it was possible that Yzma and Kronk could have beaten them, they're at a loss for words, with Kronk checking the aforementioned map and concluding it makes no sense. Every time there's a structural shortcoming in the movie, whether on purpose or not, the film at least has the decency to point it out and joke about it.
If I can complain about one thing, it's that perhaps the vocal performances were TOO strong. I haven't much talked about the visual style though, it's very simple design wise, but it fits the simple story, and is for the most part quite beautiful-looking. The characters are well-designed as well, fitting their personalities, however there were moments in some scenes where I felt a bit of a disconnect between the character and their voice. Sometimes the performance was so over-the-top and brilliant that the character animation almost felt restrained. This is a movie where you could really cut loose, and it almost felt like they were holding back. I mean, come on, the script is insane, so the animation should be too, and it's almost there.

Verdict? Yep, still love this one. Embracing wackiness and betraying the Disney formula, "Groove" is an absolutely satisfying detour from the normal, and absolutely hilarious to boot. I guess the only problem I had was that at times I felt it didn't go far enough, like it could have been really insane. But hey, it's still a phenomenal little movie, and a complete breath of fresh air for a company that was in danger of growing stale.

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