Z To A: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Faster than you can say “boom, baby,” arrogant Emperor Kuzco (voiced by David Spade) is turned into a llama by his devious advisor, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), and her hunky henchman, Kronk (Patrick Warburton), who want to rid the kingdom of this beast of burden. Now the ruler who once had it all must form an unlikely alliance with a pleasant peasant named Pacha (John Goodman). Together, Kuzco and Pacha must overcome their differences as they embark on a hilarious, “groovy” adventure that will have you howling with laughter.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

By the time The Emperor’s New Groove arrived in theaters I wasn’t a kid anymore. In fact, I hadn’t taken any interest in a Disney film for years. I heard about it through word of mouth, and in particular I remember my mother asking me to hear her out after taking my sisters to the theater. “The humor in this is wicked,” she said. “Like there is absolutely cruel stuff in this. You have to see it.”

When I sat down to watch it I wasn’t sure what to expect. Anything Disney-related didn’t exactly jibe with what she had described. But she hadn’t been exaggerating. To say the least I was surprised with the sharp writing, dark humor and how hilarious Groove proved to be. It was as if the creators of the film had somehow bypassed the expectations of the usual Disney “cuteness” and made something that was just so damn funny the censors let it pass.

For example, like when a plan to murder someone turns into a ridiculous box in a box in a box BOXCEPTION.

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There is a randomness and absurdity that governs Groove‘s universe. Moments reminded me of the slapstick humor in silent comedies or the way Peter Griffin would fall down in Family Guy: purely visual, somewhat tragic and at times completely unpredictable. In the audio commentary the filmmakers admitted that a lot of the dialogue was shaped by David Spade’s improvisations and vocal performance, which is dry and spiteful of all human interaction. It sets a precedent unseen in the usual kid’s flick, namely in that it makes those characteristics funny.

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The same thing could be said of Eartha Kitt’s Yzma and Patrick Warburton’s Kronk, who play villains so inept and silly that you’re never horrified by what they’re trying to do. Both actors improvised and went for broke, making their performances more memorable, or as the wise men in Daft Punk once wrote, “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” They are buffoons, but oh man are they entertaining. I would go as far to say they’re the most entertaining (and somewhat lovable) villains in the Disney universe.

Overall it was in giving the actors and the creative team free reign that Groove succeeds and becomes unique. For example, there was the animators’ inside joke of the Bucky The Squirrel character, because squirrels totally hang out in the jungles of South America. There are also freeze frames, breaking the fourth wall, characters questioning the plot’s inner logic and so many historical anachronisms/impossibilities that your head will spin. But really, who cares? It’s the only film where you’ll hear someone wail the phrase, “LLAMAFACE.”

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Still, at its heart Groove‘s intentions are simple. It’s a buddy road movie, following two mismatched personalities as they form a friendship and navigate life or death situations (kind of like It Happened One Night, another one of my favorites). Making that kind of story new or palatable isn’t easy, but just about every scene is a knock out with excellent delivery and timing. What better way could you introduce that kind of comedy to a kid?

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I also respect how with every step it develops and executes its jokes, reaching a point where you have no idea what is going to happen, what characters are going to say or how anyone will react to it.

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For example, one of the most shocking moments is a faux point of despair near the end, when Yzma has seemingly turned into a nightmarish monster. You’re expecting something horrendous, like the Maleficent/dragon at the end of Sleeping Beauty but instead you’re faced with a fluffy, squeaky-voiced kitten who is still plotting world domination. She also doesn’t understand that she looks like a complete joke, perhaps more than ever.

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God, that’s cold- not to say Yzma deserves what she gets.

To wrap up I’ll say I prefer to watch The Emperor’s New Groove over most kid’s movies. That hasn’t changed over the fifteen years after its release. I know the lines. My family knows the lines. My friends know the lines. It’s funny. It’s sharp. It’s witty and acerbic, and like my mother claimed, yes it’s cruel. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s what makes it work and have such longevity.

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