09 November 2012

Disney Daze: Week 40: The Emperor's New Groove

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

There is a famous adage that a film is created in the editing suite. This is certainly true for live action films. However, in animation there is never abundant footage to add or subtract to a narrative. By the time a scene has been sketched, drawn, inked, and filmed it better be in the picture. So when an animated film is well along in production and the creators discover that the story they labored over for years; writing, storyboarding, casting, and drawing is not working, there is no option but to scrap most of their completed work and start over basically from scratch. Pixar famously did this with two of their greatest achievements, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille, both of which were redone in the eleventh hour. They also did it with two of their least effective efforts, the more recent Cars 2 and Brave. Disney's late 2000 release The Emperor's New Groove may be one of the most vastly reworked features in animation history. Regrettably, the retooled and retitled feature falls decidedly into the latter camp of those aforementioned examples.

Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, the film was to be a musical based on the "Prince and the Pauper" tale and set in the Incan empire. The film was patterned after the epic sweep of the blockbuster The Lion King, whose director Roger Allers was initially helming the project. Former Police frontman Sting was commissioned to write a majestic score similar to the bombastic songbooks heard previously by Elton John and Phil Collins. Infamously, the composer's wife was hired on to film a making-of documentary for home video. However, the film ultimately became a fascinating chronicle of the bitter struggle over the troubled film's direction. The Sweatbox, as the documentary came to be known, was never released but did crop up online earlier this year before being yanked by Disney. It contains the only traces of this earlier abandoned production.

When early footage of Kingdom of the Sun was screened for test audiences the feedback was resoundingly negative. However, the Walt Disney Company had already made licensing deals with fast food restaurants and soda companies which they could not back out on. This is probably the least heartening thing one could hear about a film's creation: "Hey, do you want to go see the new movie forced into production because of Happy Meals?" The film's co-director, Mark Dindal, split off with the writer Chris Williams, and took the basest elements of the original story and flipped everything else on its head. The latest incarnation of the film would retain the petulant Incan king cursed to be a llama but make it a sassy, self-aware, snarky feature.

It works better than Hercules. But that certainly isn't saying much. In fact, The Emperor's New Groove starts off much like its brother in flippancy, by opening with a musical number introducing the brash young emperor Kuzco. Instead of a chorus of gospel-singing black women, the theme song is sung by credited "Theme Song Guy" (seriously, the credits list him as Theme Song Guy) Tom Jones, who oozes the slickest and sleaziest style of his Las Vegas act. From there we spend the first half of the picture at the mercy of Kuzco's cloying, redundant voiceover provided by none other than master thespian, David Spade. Spade's casting fits with the filmmakers' desire to portray the emperor as a pompous jackass, but that doesn't help the fact that pompous jackasses are incessantly annoying. And boy howdy, does David Spade run with that direction! 

Sadly most of the supporting cast was also selected for their abilities to conform to a one-dimensional archetype. By far, the worst offender is Patrick Warburton, who plays the dunderheaded lackey Kronk as one long David Puddy episode of Seinfeld. Yeah, that's right. Eartha Kitt portrays the villainous Yzma and she does a decent job of hamming it up. Not surprisingly, the voice actor who comes out the best is John Goodman, playing the noble villager Pacha, who helps the emperor become human again, both physically and compassionately. If there is any ounce of heart in this movie, it's contained in Goodman's delivery. Too bad he is given little opportunity to showcase it. (Thankfully the following year would see Goodman inhabiting a more nuanced animated character in the form of the big furry "kitty" Sully in Pixar's Monsters, Inc.)  

Using the style of Incan artwork as a launch pad, the film succeeds visually in its vibrant color palette. There are many deep reds in the temple and lush greens in the hillsides. Many Disney films of the era feature one scene of more abstract animation, usually when the villain is engaging in some sort of nefarious magics, and The Emperor's New Groove is no exception. The scene showing Yzma concocting her llama potion is a brief visual delight with bubbling pink and purple beakers all shaped like Incan characters and a scheming reverie set in a black shapeless void.  When the film turns to this abstraction it is frequently beautiful. The character designs throughout the film are angular and distinctive, although Yzma's look resembles the iconic Cruella de Vil a little too much. The best animated sequence in the picture revolves around a slapstick action scene, easily the cleverest in the film. On their way back to the palace, Pacha and Kuzco become trapped above a gator-infested river. Their attempts to scale a rock face to safety are thwarted by increasingly dire catastrophes in a cataclysmic Rube Goldberg-esque chain reaction. 

The Emperor's New Groove's prerogative is to make the audience laugh and it fails at this task with stunning consistency. The filmmakers confuse manic hysterics and uncomfortable pauses with genuine humor. Characters break the fourth wall, have absurd monologues, and mug for the camera like their lives depended on it. Unfortunately it all adds up to another forgettable product whose patina of funky attitude remains hopelessly and instantly dated. Like its main character, the film went through a series of transformations, but the two went in opposite directions. Kuzco the character ends the film compassionate and caring, while the film he lives in became an immature trifle.

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