I don't know. I mean, I give Disney credit for trying with movies like this one. But somehow, they just didn't hit the mark. I blame too many screenwriters, personally.

The Emperor's New Groove is Walt Disney Studios' umpteenth animated film, released in the United States in December 2000. The film starts out with a narrative introduction by David Spade's character, Emperor Kuzco, showing us himself as a llama halfway through the story before producing a flashback to the start of it.

This, for me, was the source of the whole problem. The writers chose to avoid the whole difficult task of actually introducing us to the characters by having the Kuzco/narrator do the job instead, telling us who all the major players are and why they're important. It forces the characters to conform to whatever roles Kuzco/narrator dictates for them rather than letting us get to know them through their words and actions.

The rest of the movie is mostly the lead four characters -- Kuzco, the peasant Pacha, the evil advisor Yzma, and her dumb hunk assistant Kronk -- chasing each other around while Kuzco is rescued by Pacha over and over again until he finally figures out that being nice can be a Good Thing. It's sweet, I suppose, but cliched unless someone provides a little more backstory for everyone. And no one ever does.

The real clincher for me, though, came near the end. During a comical chase scene, Yzma and Kronk launch their chariot/carriage/whatever off a cliff and -- surprise! -- it sprouts wings. Then it's struck by lightning and drops to the bottom. Then, a minute later inside the castle, they suddenly appear unharmed. Yzma is asked how she survived. She asks Kronk how they survived. Kronk points to a map of their travels and points out that, realistically, they should have died at the bottom of the cliff. Yzma shrugs it off with an "oh well" and goes on with her dialogue. As a reviewer friend of mine is fond of pointing out, when the characters are questioning the logic of the plot, you really have a problem.

To give Disney studios credit, though, this movie is genuinely hilarious, start to finish. Comic timing and settings are exploited every second of the film. Jokes that you never expect to see pop up and leave you practically rolling. But it's all Warner Bros. humor. Films like Toy Story and A Bug's Life (bless you, John Lasseter) I can smile at over and over. In this movie, once you know the joke is coming, it's a lot harder to laugh.

On the whole, an okay flick. But it's no The Lion King or Aladdin. They left the adults out of the audience this time.

Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 15 December 2000

Disney's next animated feature after Tarzan (not counting Fantasia 2000, as it is a very different kind of movie, nor Dinosaur, which was computer-animated) was to be Kingdom of the Sun, a traditional Disney song-and-romance musical about two lovers in a Central American kingdom. The songs were to be written by Sting, following in the footsteps of fellow pop artists Phil Collins and Elton John.

At some point, the Disney brass decided that the movie wasn't working. Most, if not all, of the animation was scrapped, along with the two main characters. The story was completely overhauled and re-written, and most of the songs were dropped. The name was changed, too. The result was a completely different kind of animated feature. Something Disney had never done before -- an all-out, full-blown comedy.

Sure, all of Disney's previous films had a good dose of comedy, some more than others, but The Emperor's New Groove took it all the way. In it, the selfish and conceited Emperor Kuzco is living the high life, 'grooving' to his decadent lifestyle and reveling in the power he wields. But then, something throws off his groove... his top advisor, the ancient witch Yzma, plots to overthrow him. He nonchalantly fires her, but she continues her plans, concocting a deadly poison, just for him.

But her inept and too-stupid-to-be-evil assistant Kronk messes up, and Kuzco ends up alive -- except he's a llama. Insert joke here. Kuzco the llama escapes the palace and ends up at the humble residence of the peasant Pacha and his family. Pacha, by sheer coincidence, is the very man who had come to the palace to protest the impending demolition of his village to make way for Kuzco's new summer villa. His hill has a great view, you see. But Pacha has a big heart, and he helps the llama-Emperor get back to his palace and thwart Yzma and Kronk, hoping that Kuzco just might change his mind about that villa...

The only song in the movie proper is the energetic opening number, "Perfect World" (wherein we get to see Kuzco's groove), written by Sting and well performed by none other than Tom Jones. Another Sting tune, "My Funny Friend and Me" plays over the end credits. The official soundtrack album has a few more songs, including at least one from the original love story concept called "One Day She'll Love Me."

Since the animation is not the highest quality (not bad, mind you, but loose and freely done -- no ultra realism here), the key to the film's impact is in the voice acting. The characters are perfectly cast. Former SNL'er David Spade hits the perfect notes -- from petulant whininess to biting sarcasm and even a bit of genuine emotion -- as the voice of Kuzco. John Goodman is the large but soft-hearted Pacha. Veteran actress Eartha Kitt screams, rants, and fumes her way through the role of Yzma, while Patrick Warburton plays Kronk as only he knows how. The only other big name is Spade's Just Shoot Me co-star Wendy Malick as Pacha's pregnant wife ChiCha.

The biggest laughs come from Kronk, particularly in a hilarious scene set in a diner (yes, a diner in pre-European Central America -- just go with it) where his true love -- cooking -- takes precedence over Yzma's plans. ChiCha is also entertaining and an atypical Disney character -- older, and pregnant, she's still beautiful, intelligent, witty, and more than a little sarcastic. Her role is, perhaps, too small. Pacha and ChiCha's two young children almost steal the show -- they're funny without being sickeningly cute.

"My Funny Friend and Me" was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Music, Song), and the movie picked up a few other awards here and there, but nothing much significant.

Is The Emperor's New Groove a great movie? Probably not. But it is a great comedy, with a few moments of inspired hilarity and lots of good chuckles throughout. Despite its relatively weak box office take (that's what they get for putting it up against Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas), the movie should stand as proof that yes, Disney can do something different, and do it well. Proof to both the company and to its fans, that is.

It's still too early to tell if the company has learned that particular lesson, but they certainly did try something different with their next film...

Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.

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