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So let me tell you a little story about the worst movie Disney never made. It was called Kingdom of the Sun, an epic retelling of the story of the Prince and the Pauper set in the Incan Empire. Roger Allers, director of the Lion King was at the helm, Owen Wilson was cast as the Pauper, David Spade was the Prince, Eartha Kitt was playing the villainous sorceress Yzma who was to be animated by the legendary Andreas Deja. Oh, and the score was to be provided by legendary rocker Sting. Sounds pretty awesome, right? So what happened? Well, the movie making business is a huge, complex and labyrinthine affair and the reasons why certain movies fail and others succeed is never clear cut but if I had to guess I’d have to say it was because it sucked balls. Test audiences hated the movie, which was a problem because half the damn thing was already completed. So Mark Dindal, director of Cats Don’t Dance, was brought in to make the movie a bit more light hearted and audience friendly. Dindal and Allers pretty soon found themselves at odds to the point where each director was essentially making a different movie. The Disney execs had been willing to give Allers a lot of leeway because…y’know…fucking Lion King…but it was becoming increasingly apparent that Kingdom of the Sun wasn’t going to make it’s 2000 release date. And this was a problem because Disney had signed merchandising deals with McDonald’s and Coke who probably had Michael Eisner’s daughter as collateral or something. Allers asked for a six month extension to get his shit together. And so Allers left and it fell to Dindal to pull off one of the most amazing salvage jobs in modern movie history. Out of the ashes of Kingdom of the Sun, came Emperor’s New Groove, which I have now rewatched and feel confident in saying is the single greatest comedy in the entire Disney canon. Funnier than Robin Hood and Jungle Book. It’s hilarious. In fact, it’s so funny that I’m pretty much totally screwed. There is nothing harder to review than a good comedy, especially if you are a quote unquote “comedic” reviewer. I mean, look, I think I can be pretty funny on a good day, but there is no way in hell that I can write a review that will make you laugh more than just watching this thing. But, as long we’re all agreed that this is an exercise in futility, I’m game if you are. Okay, so Dindal basically decided that there was no chance in hell they could do the kind of epic, Lion King-esque movie that Allers had planned in the time left, so they might as well just have fun. Gone was the Prince and the Pauper storyline. Yzma was now a wacky mad scientist. The Emperor, Kuzco, was now an entitled jerk. The tapes for Owen Wilson’s performance were taken and cast out into the wilderness to be feasted on by jackals with a taste for deadpan Texan delivery and John Goodman was brought in to replace him. Everything was now stripped down, small cast, simple plot, no big animated set pieces. Oh, and all but two of the songs Sting wrote were tossed out. Sting would later say: “At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance.” Well, having had to listen to My Funny Friend and Me, I too want some vengeance, Sting.
Let’s take a look at the film.
Okay so the movie begins like this.
This is essentially the movie’s way of saying “Don’t sweat the details. Don’t try to figure out what period of history this is. It happened someplace, and it happened somewhere.” This is good, because pretty much the entire movie operates on the premise that Funny>Logic. We begin in the middle of a jungle where a miserable llama is getting soaked by the rain and feeling sorry for himself. A narrator (David Spade) tells us that this pathetic ball of sodden alpaca was once a human being, an emperor no less, and that this is his story. Also the narrator’s story because you see the narrator is in fact the llama and also the emperor and just, just, just, roll with it, okay? So our narrator, Kuzco (for ’tis his name) says that he was the world’s nicest guy and that his life was ruined for no reason. Now, obviously we don’t believe him. 1) Because he’s clearly being set up as an unreliable narrator and 2) He’s voiced by David Spade for Christ’s sake.
Kuzco tells us to flashback to before he was a llama and we go a little too far.
This brief little detour shows us two things, firstly that Kuzco was spoiled from a very early age and secondly that this movie’s attitude to the fourth wall is kind of like the Kool-Aid man’s attitude to regular walls: FUCK THAT SHIT.
We fast forward 17 years or so and adult Kuzco is introduced with one of only two of Sting’s songs that survived the cull: Perfect World. And with good reason, it’s an awesome song that establishes Kuzco as the centre of the universe. We see him being waited on hand and foot in his massive gold palace by thousands of servants dedicated to his every waking whim. But is he happy?
Hell, he’s so all powerful that if he even walks towards a solid wall, a team of masons will instantaneously carve a new doorway for him. Though I can’t help but feel they’re leaving subtle visual clues about what they really think of him.
But oh yeah, the song. So Disney originally expected Sting to perform Perfect World but it’s really not a song that fits in his musical wheelhouse. Sting suggested that they get someone “younger and hipper” to sing it instead.
They got Tom Jones.
Right choice too, as “Theme Song Guy” Jones is fantastic and his vocals perfectly compliment the song. But the song comes to a sudden halt when Kuzco bumps into an old man and throws off his groove. This results in the old man getting casually defenestrated which sucks for him, but is awesome for because it means I get to use the word “defenestrated”. We now meet Pacha, voiced by John Goodman, a gentle peasant whose been summoned to the palace. He sees the Old Man (voiced by Disney legend John Fiedler) who narrowly escaped a splattering by getting caught in a banner and helps him down. The Old Man warns him to “Beware the groove…” Back in the palace we meet Yzma, voiced by Eartha Kitt and her loyal lackey Kronk voiced by Patrick Warburton and OH MY GOD STOP HIM!!!
Oh My God. Kronk. Kronk, Kronk, Kronk. Sweet mother of all that is divine. Okay, this movie does not exactly have what you’d call a star-studded cast. The main four characters are voiced by two sitcom actors (Slade and Warburton), one respected Hollywood character actor (Goodman) and a singer who’s most well known acting role was from a campy superhero show from the sixties (Catwoman. I mean, Kitt). And yet, I honestly can’t think of another cast in the canon that is so uniformly fantastic. Everyone. Like, from single-line characters on up to the leads, everyone just brings their A game. I actually went through this movie looking for a single line that I would have delivered differently or that just fell flat and I couldn’t do it. Everyone in this is fantastic.
Consider that if every single actor in this had been replaced by someone less good with the exception of Patrick Warburton as Kronk, and I would probably still be recommending this movie. He is just…holy crap the guy is hilarious in this.
Yzma is dealing with a peasant who’s family is facing starvation and coldly sneers “You really should have thought about that before you became peasants!”
Kuzco happens to overhear this and fires Yzma on the spot. Oh, not for showing a callous disregard for the suffering of the peasantry, heavens to Betsy no. But simply for governing behind his back. So, another thing I really like about this movie, they go all in on Kuzco’s douchbaggery. The movie is under no illusions, this guy is an ASS. And even though we’ve just seen Yzma throw a guy out for daring to be hungry, at least she let him leave through the fucking door! You know, what with being dismissed by a spoilt princeling she practically raised and to whose family she has given decades of loyal service, I actually think Yzma may be the first Disney villain who has a genuine legitimate grievance.
Yzma leaves, fuming, and Pacha arrives. Kuzco tells Pacha that he’s delighted to see him because he’s been told he’s the one who can “fix my problem”. He shows Pacha a replica he’s had built of Pacha’s village and oh boy. It is never, ever a good sign when the all powerful dictator/corporate mogul/whatever has a replica of your village in his office. There are no good reasons that happens.
Kuzco asks Pacha where’s the best place on the hill to catch some rays. Pacha tells him, and Kuzco reveals that tomorrow he’s going to destroy his village and build a summer palace on the ruins of his home so he should probably pick up some Change of Address forms on his way out. See…for any other review, that would just be my sarky little addendum but that’s actually in the movie. This film is its own sarcastic review. Pacha is furious because, dammit, this is not Vietnam there are rules! But Kuzco royally decrees for him to screw off. Meanwhile, Yzma is furiously destroying busts of Kuzco and plotting revenge. She hits on the idea of killing Kuzco and taking over the throne, but Kronk asks how that works what with her being fired. Yzma replies that only her, Kronk and Kuzco actually know she was fired.
Yzma invites Kuzco to dinner, planning to poison him. The plan plays both to Kronk’s strengths and his weaknesses, because while he’s an utterly incompetent evil henchman, he is an absolute God in the kitchen and I hate to keep harping on about Warburton’s performance but the way he delivers lines like “Gasp! My spinach puffs!”…it’s just glorious. Kuzco arrives and after some very funny comic business, they finally get him to drink the poison. Which turns him into a llama. As Kronk points out, this is a little weird but they soon figure out what’s happened.
Yzma orders Kronk to take Kuzco out of town and finish the job (after dessert and coffee, natch) and pretty soon Kronk has Kuzco stuffed in a sack and is sneaking through the streets humming his own theme music (Kronk? Never change). Funny story, Warburton just improvised Kronk’s theme music on the fly in the recording booth, which did not prevent him from having to sign over the rights to Disney’s lawyers. God, I want to see that agreement: “Mr Warburton hereby and into perpetuity relinquishes all performance, distribution and remuneration rights pertaining to “DOO-DOO-BE-DOO-BE-DOO-BE-DOO-BE-DOO” to the Walt Disney Company.” Okay, so Kronk throws Kuzco’s unconscious body into the river but then something odd happens.
The “little angel and little devil on the shoulder” schtick is one of my very favorite cartoon tropes and I don’t even know why. It’s probably something to do with the fact that this cartoon once made me laugh so hard I almost swallowed my tongue. Angel Kronk and Devil Kronk appear and make their case for saving Kuzco and leaving him to die respectively. Angel Kronk appeals to Kronk’s morality (“Saving Kuzco is the right thing to do”) whereas Devil Kuzco makes an appeal to his pragmatism (“Check out my abs!”). Kronk finally decides he can’t go through with it and pulls Kuzco out of the river just before he goes over a ledge and the camera pulls back to show just how far the drop is. And then back again. And again. And again…
So Kronk is running through the streets trying desperately to figure what he’s going to do before Kuzco comes to. Meanwhile, Pacha is somberly hitching up his wagon to take him home and what with one thing and another, Kronk ends up dropping the sack with Kuzco in it onto Pacha’s wagon and it’s about time we talked about this animation.
Okay, see, I really want to rate the animation highly because it’s so funny. The comedic timing is just flawless. But…okay, this movie was done in a rush with a reduced budget and they had to cut corners. That’s why there are no big animation setpieces in this movie, and why there are rarely any scenes with more than three animated characters. And when the movie does do a crowd scene, like here when Kronk is running through the marketplace? That’s when the cracks start to show. If you get a chance, next time you watch this move try playing this game. See this woman with the bowl on her head?
Try counting how many times that exact same woman appears in this crowd. I’ll wait.
Did you see her?
In fact, just look at the crowd in that picture above. Not counting Kronk there’s exactly four people in that marketplace; Bowl-Head Lady, Scarf Lady, Poncho Dude and Wee-Willie-Winkie Hat Guy. It gets worse, around half of the people aren’t even moving. They’re just standing completely static like the White Witch caught them celebrating Christmas. I love this movie, and I do appreciate the time constraints that it was made under, but I can’t give the animation a higher score than, say, the Lion King, because the animation is just not as good. Simple as that.
Pacha returns to his village and we meet his family, wife Chicha (Wendy Malick) and kids Tipo (Eli Russell Linnetz) and Chaca (Kellyann Kelso). Chicha is a groundbreaking character in a number of respects. Firstly, she’s the first pregnant woman in a canon film, and secondly, she’s the first female Disney character to make my wife say “Oh…hello.”
In fact, Pacha’s whole family are awesome, the kids are genuinely adorable and Chicha is exhibit A in why “The Wife” doesn’t have to be a bland cipher. Chicha is badass, funny, super competent and also, yes, hello.
Pacha can’t bring himself to tell his family that their village is going to be demolished and goes to put his llama and cart away. Kuzco finally wakes up (and, I don’t want to depress anyone, but being unconscious for that length of time after a head trauma? Yeah, massive brain damage) and Pacha freaks out when the “demon llama” starts talking. Kuzco doesn’t realise what’s happened to him at first but when he does he completely freaks out.
Oh wow. Turned into a llama. Yeah, that’s really the worst thing that can happen to anybody.
At first Kuzco thinks that Pacha’s responsible for his llamafication (which sounds like a really weird sexual practice) but quickly realises that he’s not exactly the type. He then resolves to go back to the city and get his former advisor, who he just fired and is nursing a massive grudge, to use her super secret high tech Mad Science Laboratory to try and suss out how this could have happened. Kuzco, the answer really is in the question.
Pacha, however, plays hardball and says that he’s not helping Kuzco unless he promises to build his summer home somewhere else. Normally I’d say trying to extort an emperor is a bad idea, but shit, what’s he gonna do? Raze his entire village to the ground? Kuzco says he doesn’t make deals with peasants and heads off on his own.
Well, I’m sure he’ll be fine. It’s not as if there’s anything dangerous in a South American rainforest other than the animals, the insects, the plants, the trees and some of the rocks. Pacha, never one to just let his problems solve themselves, follows after him. Wandering in the forest, Kuzco inevitably runs into some of the usual Disney forest detritus, this time a little squirrel named Bucky who’s voiced by Frank Welker, who’s voiced more characters than Homer Simpson has had jobs…what’s that? Bucky isn’t voiced by Frank Welker? Surely you jest? C’mon, he’s a non-speaking animal character in a Disney movie of course he’s voiced by Frank Welker, IMDb, back me up here…
Excuse me, I just need to look out the window.
Okay, Kuzco acts like a dick to Bucky for absolutely no reason which comes back to bite him in the ass when he finds himself surrounded by sleeping jaguars and Bucky realises that he had this balloon just lying around for no reason. Kuzco gets chased by the jaguars to a cliff edge but is rescued when Pacha swings passed on a vine and snatches him to safety. But then they get wrapped around a branch which snaps and go hurtling into the river. This leads to one of my favorite exchanges of dialogue in
this movie any movie English.
Kuzco: Don’t tell me. We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.
Kuzco: Sharp rocks at the bottom?
Pacha: Most likely.
Kuzco: Bring it on.
As I’ve previously explained, waterfalls in Disney movies are morality based. As a purehearted hero, Pacha is naturally completely unharmed. As a morally ambiguous anti-hero however, Kuzco is almost killed and Pacha has to give him the kiss of life which results in possibly the first animated human-llama gay panic joke. So…kudos?
As they set up camp, Pacha tries to convince Kuzco to build his summer home on someone else’s land, preferably that of those filthy Massawomecks (because fuck those guys). I know I’ve already said this, but I love how utterly resistant Kuzco is to the traditional Disney lessons. Pacha tries the whole “If you don’t start caring about other people you’ll end up all alone” schtick and…it does not find a receptive audience.
Back at the palace, Yzma holds a funeral for Kuzco before a massive crowd of all four of the city’s inhabitants.
After the funeral Kronk lets slip to Yzma that Kuzco may in fact be slightly more alive than he previously led her to be believe and a furious Yzma announces that they’re going on a llama hunt.
Back in the forest, Kuzco tells Pacha that he’s had a change of heart, and that if he takes him home he promises not to destroy his village.
Pacha is suspicious, but he wants to believe that there’s good in everyone so he and Kuzco shake on it and get going.
They reach a rickety old rope bridge and Pacha says that once they cross it they’ll be almost at the palace. Hmm…a llama on a rickety old rope bridge, where have I seen that before?
The bridge snaps under Pacha’s weight and he’s only saved by some vines. He pleads with Kuzco to pull him up but Kuzco says “Yeah, no” and leaves him there to fucking die. This is the lead character in a Disney movie, I remind you. Pacha angrily yells that they shook hands on it but Kuzco points out that you need hands for that and then he falls through the bridge and gets tangled in the vines. Pacha first makes sure that Kuzco is alright, ‘cos he’s a good guy, and then punches him in the face because he’s not Mother frickin’ Teresa.
That’s a Big Lebowski reference, by the way. I didn’t suddenly have a psychotic episode.
Alright, so they bitch slap each other some and then, through the magic of teamwork, they manage to get back up the cliff and Kuzco even saves Pacha’s life. With the bridge gone it’s a four day walk to the palace and Pacha offers to take him there even though Kuzco is still planning on building the damn summer home because “I shook on it”. And someone really needs to give Pacha a primer on contract law. Once the other party breaks the agreement, you don’t owe them jack shit. Even Kuzco is surprised, but Pacha tells him that “four days is a long time. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
Meanwhile, searching in the jungle, Kronk and Yzma run into Bucky. Kronk speaks squirrel (because of course he does) and Bucky tells them about the asshole llama who was giving him sass a few days ago.
Meanwhile, said asshole llama and Pacha want to eat at a roadside diner but the diner has a strict “no llama” policy so they disguise themselves as a newly wed couple.
Kuzco goes into the kitchen to berate the chef and Yzma and Kronk arrive and sit right next to Pacha. Pacha overhears them talking about how they should have killed Kuzco when they had the chance and manages to get Kuzco out of the diner before they spot him. I am skipping over a metric shit-ton of solid gold comic business, but saying “Kronk becomes a chef” is somehow not as hilarious as seeing it for yourself.
Pacha explains that there’s an old woman and a big guy looking for him, and Kuzco is overjoyed. Pacha tries to convince him that they’re trying to kill him but Kuzco’s not buying it and thinks that Pacha is just trying to strand him in the jungle forever and angrily storms off. But then he overhears Yzma and Kronk talking about how much Kuzco-killing they’re planning on getting in and realises that Pacha was right. But…too late, Pacha is gone and now Kuzco is stranded and alone in the jungle which brings us right back to where we came in.
Meanwhile, in another part of the jungle Kronk springs awake as a terrible realisation hits him.
He realises that Pacha was the peasant that took Kuzco from the city and bursts into Yzma’s tent to tell her he has a lead and…
The writers were actually worried that Eartha Kitt would be offended by the constant jokes in the script about Yzma’s age but Kitt loved the character, actually coming back to voice her in Kronk’s New Groove AND Emperor’s New School.
Kuzco comes across a herd of wild llamas, and resigns himself to living amongst them. But then he hears a familiar voice talking to the llamas:
“But despite everything, I followed him out here because I know there’s some good in him. Besides, I couldn’t leave him out here on his own. He’s a lousy llama.”
The two reconcile and Pacha takes Kuzco back to his village to get some supplies before making another run at the palace. But Yzma and Kuzco have beaten them to it, and are waiting in Pacha’s house having told Chicha that they’re distant relatives. Pacha manages to surreptitiously let Chicha in on what’s happening and she promises to stall them as long as she can. This involves giving them the grand tour of the broom closet and locking them inside. Yzma orders Kronk to break down the door but he refuses (“What are you, kidding me? This is hand carved mahogany!”)
They eventually get out and so the final part of the movie begins with an extended chase sequence with Yzma, Kronk, Kuzco and Pacha all racing to be the first to get to the palace.
Pacha and Kuzco break into Yzma’s lab but discover that the potion to turn Kuzco back into a human being has gone missing. Yzma emerges from the shadows and Kuzco asks how she could possibly have gotten there before them. Yzma doesn’t quite know, and asks Kronk, who admits that it defies all logical sense and even shows the map to prove it.
Yzma tosses Kronk a knife and tells him to finish off Kuzco and Pacha which prompts a spirited discussion between Kronk and his shoulder angel and devil. Which everyone else can hear.
Yzma (who, I’ve got to say, has been exhibiting martyr-like levels of restraint for a Disney villain up until now) finally snaps and tells Kronk that he’s an idiot and that what’s more, she never liked his spinach puffs.
Kronk tries to drop a chandelier on Yzma but it just passes over her because she’s got the body mass of an Olsen twin, and she drops him through a trapdoor and calls the palace guards. The guards charge Pacha and Kuzco who make a run for it, but not before Pacha dumps a load of potion on them which changes them into various animals. Yzma orders the guards to pursue, but one of them quietly says “Um…I’ve been turned into a cow? Can I go home?” and is excused.
They chase Kuzco and Pacha through the palace, with Pacha giving Kuzco different potions to try and turn him back into a human until finally there’s only two bottles left. Yzma smashes one and there’s a huge explosion of red smoke and we hear sinister, booming laughter. Oh yeah, it’s the end of a Disney movie and the villain just got transformed, we all know where this is going…
Hmm…Yzma was turned into a kitten. Yzma…was turned into…a kitten.
The three scuffle for the last potion and Pacha gets knocked over the ledge and only barely manages to hold on. Kuzco goes to drink the potion but Yzma’s swiped. She gloats in her little kitty voice before saying “Is that my voice? Is that MY voice?” which according to legend was just an outtake from Eartha Kitt hearing her modified voice for the first time. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s awesome. The kitten tries to get the bottle open and instead she falls over the ledge and plummets to her doom (one Kookaburras joke per review, guys, let’s not get greedy).
But Disney convention is subverted yet again because a delivery guy has just finished setting up a trampoline outside the main gates of the palace and Yzma goes rocketing back up, catches the bottle in mid-air and is just about to drink it when Kronk crushes her by opening a trap door and musing “Wow. What are the odds that trapdoor would leave me out here?”
So that pretty much wraps her up. Kuzco is a changed man (literally), doesn’t build Kuzcotopia and Kronk gets a job teaching children how to speak squirrel and goes on to star in a sequel that I’ve heard is not completely awful so we’ll call that a happy ending.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but human beings are just the fucking worst.
Audiences stayed well the hell away from this one when it first hit the cinemas. Partially that was because the Disney marketing wallahs did not know how the hell to sell this thing. Eisner had largely given up on the film after the Kingdom of the Sun debacle and so this movie was pretty much sent out into theatres to die with little advertising. Not only was the movie not a hit but it actually failed to make back its production costs on initial release, making it the first bona-fide flop of the Disney canon since Rescuers Down Under a decade prior. It’s since gained a massive cult following (we meet on Tuesdays) but its failure, coupled with the success of Dinosaur meant another nail had been put in the coffin of traditional Disney animation. That’s a real shame, because this is a wonderful movie. But at the same time, the fact that they had to spend $100 Million on a film that could have been made for a quarter of that did not bode well for Disney. The next movie would have to prove the continued viability of traditional animation in the CGI era. Would it swim, or sink?
I know, I know, with the constraints they were working under it’s a wonder half the movie wasn’t just them moving the cels by hand but it is what it is. I will say that the comedic timing of the movie’s animation is superb.
The Leads: 16/20
I normally detest David Spade in anything but he is really good in this role, and John Goodman is a good man. And thorough.
The Villains: 17/20
Yzma is possibly my favorite wholly comedic villain in the canon, Eartha Kitt just kills it.
Supporting Characters: 20/20
The Music: 14/20
One good song in the movie and one terrible one over the credits. The rest of the score is fine.
FINAL SCORE: 81%
NEXT TIME: I’ve got a sinking feeling that Atlantis. The Lost Empire is next.
Someone needs to stop me making puns like that.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. He is currently writing a three issue arc of superhero comic The League of Volunteers. The first issue is on sale here for five euro or seven of your Yankee dollars. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!