Aside from the Pixar films and the likeable Lilo & Stitch, The Emperor’s New Groove was the last Disney film I watched in cinemas until 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. For me, it marked the end of an era of great affection for the studio and the beginning of a notable slump. While my short diary note about seeing it on February 26, 2001, was simply that it was ‘quirky & amusing’, it has been probably the most forgettable of the Disney films I’ve seen and is certainly not one of their classics – while Disneytoon churned out a sequel and a TV series, there has been little in the way of legacy here, and overall the story of the emperor who turned into a llama seems mostly forgotten.
Kuzco is an Incan emperor, young and spoilt. An assassination attempt goes awry and Kuzco is, yes, transmogrified into a llama. He ends up helpless and in danger, but is helped by the subjects who only recently he had told would be losing their homes when he tore down their village to make way for a new pleasure palace. Of course, the emperor must learn lessons of humility and friendship as an unlikely band is formed to restore him to power – and his original form.
Vibrant and well-realized, the film nonetheless suffers from its human character designs being somewhat ugly, which along with them being so unsympathetic makes it difficult to care.
The production story is in itself perhaps a more interesting tale than the final result – and indeed, a documentary about the problems the film had getting made were made into a documentary, The Sweatbox, although Disney do not seem very willing to release it to a wider audience. The film was originally conceived as Lion King co-director Roger Allers’ follow-up. However, his film lacked comic relief, so Mark Dindal of Cats Don’t Dance was brought in to lighten the story. Unfortunately, rather than a synthesis, the two started to work in different, opposing directions. Knowing the film was going poorly and behind schedule, Disney pushed for progress, but being refused an extension, Allers quit.
The result was the zany, silly comedy film that was eventually released, more Warner Bros than Disney (as may be expected: Cats Don’t Dance was from Warner). It seems a shame we will never see what Allers planned, and that the songs Sting wrote for the film ended up not being used, but honestly, the film could have been considerably worse.