Friday, September 16, 2005

The Emperor's New Groove (Dindal, 2000)

The Emperor’s New Groove is a film so genuinely witty and resistant to formula that I had to check the DVD case to make sure that the film I was watching was really produced by Disney. The central character is not another recycled wide-eyed dreamer with a wise-cracking sidekick chasing after a sassy idealized animated hottie. Oddly enough, he really isn’t even all that likable. Still, with distinct, memorable characters and a fresh, consistently pleasing script, The Emperor’s New Groove manages to offer a valuable message of integrity and humility while simultaneously providing laughs for both children and adults.

The greatest risk the filmmakers take is to place a snotty, arrogant young ruler (voiced by David Spade) at the center of their story. Not only can Emperor Kuzco have anything his heart desires, he can even have anyone that dares disrupt his life of wealth and excess tossed from the nearest palace window. Naturally this sort of behavior engenders a fair amount of hostility amongst those he has abused and soon he is the subject of a murder plot. Though he may not appreciate it at the time, Kuzco is fortunate to escape with his life when the assassination is botched and instead he is turned into a llama. What follows is a delightful tale of how the smug, selfish Kuzco gradually learns the value of trust and kindness. Especially pleasing is the way that this lesson is not delivered in a heavy-handed monologue or through a vacuous pop song, but rather through tangible examples and at least one simple, yet effective, metaphor.

Another pleasant surprise is that most of the laughs in The Emperor’s New Groove come not from pop culture references or blatant anachronisms, but arise internally from the world of the film. The filmmakers clearly understand funny. Llamas, for example, are funny. With the long necks, the awkward bodies and their temperamental attitudes, they are inherently comedic creatures and the decision to place Kuzco into a llama body is a good one. There is also a scene of remarkable comedic timing set within a kind of diner where characters cross paths, narrowly missing one another, all the while holding a conversation with a third character that is so obsessed with his task at hand that he doesn’t realize that he is talking to two different people. Or take the character of Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton) who is set up to be a doofus, but gets most of the film’s big laughs because the execution of his character is anything but stupid. Warburton supplies Kronk with impeccable comic timing, as well as charm and most importantly sincerity. We laugh because Kronk does not seem like a Hollywood actor that knows he’s playing dumb, rather he is comically earnest.

There are a few moments where The Emperor’s New Groove momentarily loses its way and tries a little too hard to be hip. Specifically, Spade’s omniscient voice-over, in which he interrupts the story and provides commentary, constantly reminding us that he is the misunderstood hero of the story, gets tiresome quickly and seems like an unnecessary hangover from an early draft of the script. Indeed, Spade’s voice-over in general is the most inconsistent of the bunch, occasionally capturing the snide humor that presumably won him the role, but more often sounding awkwardly like a guy clearly reading his lines in a recording studio. Nevertheless, The Emperor’s New Groove, exceeded my expectations and delivered a solid night of family entertainment.



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