A Study in Disney: ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000)

| February 3, 2022

Disney has been with us for almost a century now, and so it is safe to say that there might only be a finite number of people left whose childhood wasn’t touched by one of Walt’s confections.  They’re part of our culture, part of our collective imagination.  Over the next several months, I am going to be looking into their animated features.  It’s a journey that is sometimes magical, sometimes baffling, but always, purely Disney.

When The Emperor’s New Groove was released in December of the year 2000 after six years in development it turned out to be exactly what Disney animation needed.  The turn of the millennium marked the end of Disney’s renaissance.  Audiences were growing frustrated with Disney’s portentous and pretentious (and in a few cases even odious) attempts to make art and were beginning to venture elsewhere.  Movie animation was now a crowded field with other studios inspired by Disney’s renaissance putting together their own animated properties.  A light entertainment is just what Disney needed.

The Emperor’s New Groove is the first Disney animated feature since Aladdin to put slapstick comedy at the forefront.  The color and majesty of the animation of the traditional Disney films of the moment were replaced by a pallet reminiscent (some would say copied verbatim) from old Warner Bros cartoons of the 1940s and 50s.  Save for some necessary dramatic tones in the film’s key relationship it hasn’t one serious bone in its body.  The idea is to set a whacky plot in motion and watch it bounce along in unexpectedly funny ways.

It didn’t start out that way.  The movie’s original concept was balanced somewhere between their attempts to make art during the Renaissance and their later attempts to be culturally sensitive.  It started as a sober portrait of the Incan culture called Kingdom of the Sun and had a much more serious and dramatic tone mixed with bits of comedy, much like The Lion King.  The entire soundtrack would have been done by Sting.  The character Pacha was to be voiced by Owen Wilson, whose version was much younger, looked identical to Kuzco and fell in love with the emperor’s fiancé.  The character Yzma was planning to summon the Death God Supay to destroy the sun because she believed that it was drying out her skin and causing her to age rapidly. 

The story was different in the original concept as well, having Pacha and Kuzco’s characters switching places – a concept drawn from Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”  It would involve the Emperor and Pacha switching places and Yzma turning Kuzco into a llama to reveal the ruse.  Pacha would fall in love with Kuzco’s fiancé Nina, voiced by Carla Gugino, while the Emperor would fall for a lonely llama herder named Mata voiced by Laura Prepon.  Kuzco and the herder would have teamed up to undo Yzma’s plans.

The executive panic that forced the changes will always be debated.  What were the real reasons that this happened?  The most common theory rests in the reaction to two recent films.  First was Pocahontas which, during its production, was so lauded as an artistic statement that artists were begging to be let go from work on The Lion King, which was seen as a minor experiment to work on it.  The executives, CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, were stunned when the film was received with middling reviews, controversy from native American groups and a general indifference from audiences.  In the years to come the film would become a source of bad laughs and a paragon of where Disney plummeted off a cliff during what was considered the best period of creative thinking in its history.

The other was Hercules, an attempt at an Aladdin-style comedy that was beautifully rendered visually but turned out to be a narrative mess.  That film was an attempt to lighten things up after the serious hackness of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It didn’t work.  Most audiences didn’t buy the story nor the comedy and reactions have been mixed ever since.

Still nervous about recreating the same shameful laughing stock, The Kingdom of the Sun was remade as The Emperor’s New Groove, a buddy comedy that wipes from the screen all cultural aesthetics dealing with the culture itself.  Yes, this takes place during the height of the Incan empire but, much like Aladdin, that’s only a backdrop; there is barely a hint of the culture at all.  It devolves the culture as well as the drama and bolsters the comedy into something even much more shored up than Hercules.  The result is a movie that breaks no new ground whatsoever.  Its only function is to entertain.

Is this a good thing?  Well, given the backlash of Pocahontas and Hercules it might be safe to say yes.  We will never know what The Kingdom of the Sun might have looked like but given Disney’s difficulties dealing with other cultures, it might have been a better idea to switch gears.  What remains will always be debated.  The film is wild with comic invention, goofy dialogue and some wonderful fourth-wall breaking comedy.  As the old saying goes, you can’t argue with the laughs.


NOTE: Sting’s involvement in the film was dependent upon his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, being able to make a documentary about the making of the film.  The Sweatbox is a now-legendary behind-the-scenes chronical of the making of the film that starts out like any other standard making-of special but eventually ends up chronicling the disastrous eight-year construction, downfall and retooling of the film that began in 1994 and wasn’t released until late 2000.

The Sweatbox would unintentionally become a revealing look into the construction of a film birthed from a solid idea that is overturned by executive decision causing dismay and heartache to the cast and crew.  It had its premiere at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival before disappearing into the annals of lore and legend.  Disney never released the documentary officially and it has remained in the realm of bootlegs and internet leaks ever since.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.