The perfect example of a troubled production that, in the end, managed to be turned into something great. The Emperor's New Groove's production history is fascinating, as the film began being life as one thing and ended up as something completely different - in a good way. The film might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it delivers one of the best comedies the Disney studio has ever produced.
But let's start at the very beginning, shall we? The Emperor's New Groove began with the title Kingdom of the Sun, a very expensive and epic tale that was loosely based on the Twain story The Prince and the Pauper, and was set in a Peruvian Incaic world. The director was none other than Lion King co-director Roger Allers, and musician Sting was brought on to write songs for the film. The filmmaker and his crew wanted a grand tale in the same vein as The Lion King and wanted to do it emulating the "Broadway formula" from the 1990s. After many years in development, the production had been troubled every step of the way and Disney executives brought Mark Dindal in to help Allers meet the production deadline of Summer 2000. When things got worse, executives threatened to shut down production and Allers quit the project. The original production history is covered in depth by Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, in a documentary called The Sweatbox, which has been unavailable ever since completion by the Disney company. Hopefully, some day they’ll come to their senses and release it, as it would be fascinating to see the evolution of this film from its original conception to the final product.
Dindal reshaped the film into something completely different, making it a buddy comedy only just retaining some of the original story's characters but aiming for something much more humorous than the previous outline. The result is a movie that might not be as profound or layered as previously intended, but that is one of the best lasting comedies of the past decade. The story is a very simple one: a selfish emperor gets turned into a llama by his evil counsellor, a witch who wants the kingdom for her. The emperor/llama gets the help of a humble peasant and together they travel back to the castle so he can regain human form. In the process, the emperor learns humility and to care for others. While the story is pretty straightforward, what makes it great is that it's an absolute riot. Instead of devolving into a clichéd comedy full of pop culture jokes that by now would have been dated, the humour in the film is played marvellously. Most of the credit has to go to the animators for creating such outrageous personalities, which combines with superb voice work from an outstanding cast.
We essentially have two pairs of antagonistic characters: Kuzco, our hero, and his friend and aide Pacha are one; the evil Yzma and her henchman Kronk are the other. Both offer plenty of comedic moments and the interplay between the pairs is absolutely hilarious. David Spade, John Goodman, Patrick Warbuton and the late Eartha Kitt deliver exceptional performances which give the characters plenty of life and personality.
The animation is not as ambitious or grand as many previous films, but I think that the simplistic style serves the film right and complements the film's tone exceptionally well. The film is not a musical, as the majority of Sting's songs were ultimately excluded, but I think it was the right move as it wouldn't have worked if songs were included in it.
The Emperor's New Groove may not be the epic, grand event it was originally conceived as, but, as comedy goes, it's unrivalled. With plenty of fresh jokes that still work today, outstanding characters brimming with exceptional personalities and a simple yet universal story about learning to care about others, The Emperor's New Groove represents one of the brightest spots in this mostly obscure era. Rating: 4.5/5.
Next Week - Animated Classic #41 Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).