I cringed while watching the first trailer for Disney's animated
feature, "The Emperor's New Groove." The title was dreadful, sounding
like something concocted by a grandmother trying to be hip. Then there
was the art. When I was little, there were two kind of cartoons: the
cutesy-pie, parent-friendly Disney stuff and the edgier, anti-authority
Warner Brothers fare. The drawings in the "Emperor" commercial looked
like they were stolen from a latter day, cut-rate Warner Brothers
feature. But what really got me was the voice of the lead character. It
only took one word for my internal alarm bells to go off as I recognized
the smug tones of David Spade.
David Spade, the sarcastic troll from "Saturday Night Live." David
Spade, the smarmy creep who periodically appeared on "Weekend Update"
doing commentary on Hollywood figures, taking cheap shots at easy
targets – as if the talent-impaired twerp was in a position to pass
judgment on anybody. David Spade, who dared to strut around acting
superior in Chris Farley movies before making "Lost & Found," his own
wretched feature film. How can there be atheists in a world where David
Spade parleys snideness into a career, thus offering proof that there
truly is a Devil who trade favors for souls?
I went into the screening of "The Emperor's New Groove" expecting the
worst, but emerged with a smile. By Disney standards, the art is weak.
The drawing style and comic sensibilities are indeed ripped off from
Warner Brothers. And David Spade is in virtually every one of the
production's 79 minutes. But despite it all, "The Emperor's New Groove"
is fun, almost solely due to inspired casting of the voices behind the
drawings, including, much as I hate to admit it, David Spade.
The project went through major changes. Originally titled "Kingdom of
the Sun," it was to have been a typically lavish Disney musical, a grand
romantic comedy in which the emperor was but a supporting player.
Somewhere along the developmental course, the production lost its main
concept, lead characters and a handful of songs by Sting (a couple of
his tunes remain; one at the beginning and the other over the closing
The revised version tells a simple tale. Kuzco (Spade), the bratty,
arrogant young emperor of an Inca-like empire, is targeted for
assassination by his advisor, the wicked Yzma (Eartha Kitt). But Yzma
and Kronk (Patrick Warburton), her chronically preoccupied assistant,
grab the wrong bottle and, instead of poisoning their leader, they turn
him into a llama. Kuzco runs for his life and ends up with Pacha (John
Goodman), a gentle soul from a peasant village. Due to his belief in the
goodness of the human heart, Pacha agrees to help Kuzco avoid Yzma,
return to the castle and regain his throne.
The film starts off slow, with Spade oozing sarcasm during a torturous
opening monologue. In stark contrast to most Disney offerings, the
drawings feature almost no background details. As a result, the
characters initially come off like figures doing stand-up comedy on an
animated stage (Oddly enough, just as I noted the production's broad,
Las Vegas feel, one of the film's two songs began, crooned by none other
than Tom Jones). In addition to the lack of background details, the
empire is also noticeably underpopulated. Including soldiers and
villagers, I counted less than thirty people in the whole movie. Perhaps
the bulk of the population recognized the voice of their leader and
After the set-up and song, the production soon turns into a buddy
comedy, with Kuzco and Pacha squabbling and then bonding, while Yzma and
Kronk try to track them down. Most of the slapstick works, although the
writers toss in two ancient, unwelcome gags about male intimacy, one
involving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the other a simple hug. Both
times, two guys get close, then panic and bolt away from each other,
muttering macho phrases while skittering about nervously. Not only do
the jokes reinforce homophobia, but they are also lame recreations of
the legendary pillow scene in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
Thankfully, the casting is light years better than those scenes. As the
cruel, immature emperor Kuzco, Spade is, of course, perfect. John
Goodman, meanwhile, lends his warm, deep tones to the gentle giant
Pacha. Because of the character's innocent nature, Goodman gets
relatively few one-liners, but he proves a welcome balm to Spade's
As is the norm in cartoons, the villains get the best lines. Eartha Kitt
is excellent as the wicked Yzma, upping the metallic edge of her voice
to great effect, managing to give even her quietest line readings the
sense of a coiled snake ready to strike. But even the remarkable Eartha
gets upstaged by Patrick Warburton, who casually steals the movie as
Kronk, a lovable henchman more interested in emulating Martha Stewart
than doing evil. Warburton delighted audiences as David Puddy on
"Seinfeld" and corporate-shark-turned-hobo Johnny Johnson on
"NewsRadio," and he underplays his lines here beautifully. The man has a
unique gift for comedy and is destined for greatness.
Disney clearly invested little effort on "The Emperor's New Groove," but
the film is still a minor success, courtesy of Warburton, Kitt, Goodman…
and Spade. If the movie turns out to be a hit, I hope the company is
smart enough to send large bonus checks to the foursome. And if they
decide to give each of the others a bigger cut than Spade, that's fine
with me too.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott