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by: James Berardinelli

Review by Michael Dequina

With Disney's 38th animated feature, The Emperor's New Groove, come two distinct perceptions. The title's nontraditional inclusion of a slang term and the film's no-frills art style could be read as reflective of a general attitude: looser, wilder, hipper--a brazen new direction for the usually staid House of Mouse. Then there's the less forgiving point of view, which takes into account the film's turbulent path to the screen. Originally conceived as a DreamWorks-style epic musical drama called Kingdom of the Sun, the film morphed into its current tune-free incarnation when the concept was completely overhauled after a third of the film had already been completely animated; Groove's lean running time and lack of a big animation showpiece--a staple of modern Disney 'toons--would lend support to the thought of the end product as one big rush job.

After seeing Groove, I'd say both sides of the argument hold water. Coming off of the heels of the technological breakthroughs of last year's Tarzan, this film's scaled-down visual style cannot help but be a letdown; also, the story is even more threadbare than one is used to, even by family film standards. That said, there's no denying the energy and joy present in this zippy tale, and the film's genial, unpretentious nature--not to mention sharp wit--are what will win over the most cynical viewer.

Its rocky production history aside, Groove faces a major hurdle from the outset, a problem it never completely overcomes: the voice casting of its lead character, Kuzco. The film's original title, Kingdom of the Sun, figures into the retooled story as a basic description of the arrogant and materialistic South American emperor's dream project: a sun-drenched mountain-top retreat/monument-to-self whose construction means bulldozing the homes of many villagers--in particular, honorable peasant Pacha (voiced by John Goodman), his wife (Wendie Malick), and their children. So by basic story design, Kuzco is a pretty obnoxious character, and the casting of famously acerbic ex-SNL'er David Spade would appear to be spot-on. However, it proves to be too perfect; anyone familiar with his work knows that when he plays a jerk, he plays the role to the smarmy, one-dimensional extreme, with absolutely no trace of latent sincerity or humanity. As one would expect, Groove's basic arc is the bratty young ruler's gradual discovery of some sense of compassion, and with Spade cranked to maximum, irredeemable abrasion from frame one, the ultimate transition isn't believable. Even worse, it's impossible to care if he changes--both in terms of personality level and physical appearance, for his conniving, magic-dabbling advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) transforms him into... a llama.

That plot point shows how director Mark Dindal and writing collaborators Chris Williams and David Reynolds are able to make this Groove an ultimately smooth one: reckless comic abandon. The llama-fied Kuzco ends up teaming with the goodhearted Pacha to return to the royal palace and reclaim his throne, and during their big road trip, the two get into a number of very funny comic predicaments--that is, when they're not engaging in some inspired verbal sparring. Not every gag works--a slapsticky scene in which the pair try to evade Yzma and her lunkheaded servant Kronk (voiced to scene-stealing perfection by Patrick Warburton) in a restaurant particularly reeks of sitcom--but the duds are a tolerable tradeoff for antic highlights such as the chain reaction of calamity that results when Kuzco and Pacha walk across an unsteady rope bridge. Dindal and company also use the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot to their advantage, using them to spin cleverly self-effacing jokes.

Given its lightweight nature, The Emperor's New Groove


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