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The Emperor's New Groove

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Emperor's New Groove

Starring: David Spade, John Goodman
Director: Mark Dindal
Rated: G
RunTime: 80 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genres: Comedy, Kids


*Also starring: Wendie Malick, Kellyann Kelso, Eli Russell Linnetz, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton



Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
No Rating Supplied

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 credits).

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 moved.

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 acidity.

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

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