Disney’s new generation of animators has quietly staged a palace revolt with “The Emperor’s New Groove.” The holiday release may not match the groovy business of many of the studio’s other kidpix, but it will be remembered as the film that established a new attitude in the halls of Disney’s animation unit. While the long-gestated project retains several classic aspects of the Mouse style from the ’40s and ’50s, it discards many newer Disney trends and turns to the old competition — namely, the Chuck Jones/Warners look — for considerable inspiration. Light, taut and compact, the zippy adventure is sometimes much too hip for the room, and thus over the heads of younger kids who deserve their piece of the holiday movie pie. A fresh set of Disney characters, however, could prove enough of an enticement to tally solid mid-range numbers.
Only time will tell if director Mark Dindal’s take on the classic fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (which receives no mention in the credits) — an approach strongly backed, by all accounts, by Disney chief Peter Schneider –sets a trend for a unit that was recently foundering with well-crafted but conservative animation. In some respects, tolerance for pic’s humor and contempo attitude will go as far as one can take thesp David Spade, who not only voices the egomaniacal title character but whose trademark smart-assed manner seems to have informed much of the comedic tone. While this may not suggest too much of a leap from other projects in the past decade, in which cool lingo and other updated cultural references have been laid on top of classic tales, pic boasts significant visual changes of pace as well.
Pic’s opening scenes include brief indications of the project’s original Incan theme. Spade’s miserable emperor-turned-llama Kuzco recalls, in flashback, when he ruled the roost and could kick plebeians over the palace walls for “throwing off his groove.” As Kuzco reaches the pinnacle of his indulgent glory, pic features a Sting-penned song, “Perfect World” (belted out by Tom Jones). (Six songs by the pop star were junked when the serious-minded epic musical transformed into the current comedy.)
Kuzco’s prime skill is making enemies, which he does with his evil, conniving adviser, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), and with innocent, salt-of-the-earth shepherd Pacha (John Goodman). No sooner does Kuzco fire Yzma (“We’re not picking up your option,” he cracks) than he informs Pacha that his hillside village will be razed for Kuzcotopia, the honcho’s getaway resort. In a wittily staged and timed sequence, Yzma and her dunderheaded assistant, Kronk (Patrick Warburton), serve up dinner to Kuzco and poison his drink — but instead of killing the king, it turns him into a talking llama, whom clunky Kronk allows to escape onto Pacha’s departing cart.
A nearly 40-minute midsection builds the most amusing buddy comedy in any recent animation, which entails Pacha discovering who’s in the back of his cart, dealing with his growing family (headed up by Wendie Malick’s sober wife, Chica) and helping the still-egotistical, hoofed Kuzco get back home and avenge Yzma’s palace coup.
A central Disney character as negative as Kuzco is a notable gamble, but it pays off in the friction created with upright Pacha. A few action scenes in the Andean highlands happen to mirror nearly identical moments in the new, live-action “Vertical Limit.” Comedy and danger are much more cleverly imagined and balanced here than in, say, last year’s “Tarzan,” and without that film’s elaborate, computerized 3-D work.
When Yzma — suggesting a crazed, late-era Bette Davis — decides to hunt down the king she thought was dead, the watchword here is “farce,” and the rhythm of the chase and showdown comes as close to Chuck Jones and Tex Avery as any Disney project in memory. An extended riff with an elusive bottle of elixir that can restore Kuzco to human form is milked for every drop, giving the impression of a highly elastic, almost free-form animation style.”Groove” as a whole bears outs the wisdom of the shift from the original, serious conception to this comedic one. Perhaps its most successful concept is the modeling of the characters on the thesps voicing them. The effect allows auds to picture the small, spindly Spade playing the narrow-necked llama or the extra-large Goodman as big, lovable Pacha. The sense of energy delivered not by effects but by characters is no better exemplified than in Kitt’s unabashedly diva-like performance. Warburton’s Kronk offers ideal counterpoint, drolly underplaying every line. The gifted Malick is the only thesp whose character is left out in the cold, with nearly nothing to do.
The echoes of Chuck Jones are especially felt in John Debney’s frequently punchy underscore, which only rarely drifts into standard sentimental notes. Pic’s dominant motif of sharp, simplified line drawings, anatomically fine but not overly precise renderings and less fussy backgrounds is welcome in an animation era when more has become less.