The Disney shop often delivers cookie-cutter animated features, repeated variations on tried-and-true formulas. On occasion, (Fantasia 2000), they bore the kids, even as they slight the intelligence of the audience of all ages. But from time to time the studio transcends its movie-by-committee weaknesses and comes up with solid entertainment that the kids and their parents can enjoy.
Thinking back, The Lion King (1994) was distinguished for its imaginative and beautiful animation as well as some genuinely fresh characters out of the Disney mold. And the last Disney animated feature to generate a salubrious helping of belly laughs was Aladdin (1992), in which Disney shrewdly harnessed the hilarious zaniness of Robin Williams, then let him out of the magic lamp as the most memorable genie of all time.
The Emperor’s New Groove, a movie whose rumor mill could grind out a soap opera all its own, again capitalizes on the technique of using not only the voices of popular performers, but translating some of their look and personality into the animated characters. The emperor, Kuzco, is David Spade, a "Saturday Night Live" regular, known for his sarcasm. Selfish and arrogant, Kuzco has a bad attitude and a mouth to go with it. It’s clear he will need a comeuppance. His evil adviser, Yzma, is played by Eartha Kitt, with her inimitable smoky voice and exotic tone, perfect for the scheming diva.
When Kuzco fires Yzma ("You’re downsized!"), she turns him into a llama. He is rescued from a pack of preying panthers by Pacha, a pronouncedly portly peasant of pleasant disposition, played by John Goodman in his Dan Conner (Roseanne) persona. Together Pacha and Kuzco undergo a classic road trip, meeting with a variety of adventures as they travel back to the palace where they must overcome Yzma to restore the emperor to his human form and to his throne. The experiences of the journey teach Kuzco some humility and consideration for others–it’s an unambiguous moral tale, ideal for the kids.
These characters never generate gutbusters in the same league with Robin Williams, but the script has some very funny material, nonetheless, most of which Spadegets to deliver. Contemporary lingo is played against the fairy tale setting for the humor of anachronism. The incongruity of a fairy tale emperor telling Eartha Kitt that she has been "downsized" turns the laugh back out on the audience which lives with those catch words of the day, and, in particular here, the euphemisms of American corporate and television culture. Director Mark Dindal maintains a fast pace and provides just enough humor for the adults, spread through the cartoon pratfalls more likely to amuse the kids.
Only the opening number makes any real musical impression–a hot salsa rhythm which seems a lot more South Beach than the vaguely Peruvian environs of the story. The animation is fresh, with an exuberant use of color–wonderful oranges and reds and golds for the pomp of the court, cool blues and lavenders for Yzma. The voiceover narration by the pushy emperor even allows for amusing interruptions of the screen action so that he can reassert some priorities. And one sequence with the major characters crisscrossing paths in a restaurant achieves the droll hilarity of high farce.
Credit Dindal, too, for knowing when he’s done. The Emperor’s New Grooveclocks in at a brisk and brief eighty minutes. The kids were diverted and the adults had a share of laughs. It may not be vintage Disney, but it’s a holiday entertainment as light and ephemeral as cotton candy.