Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
There aren’t too many Disney films that have received a second life after disappointing at the box office. But The Emperor’s New Groove defied expectations and found a new home amongst Gen X- and Z-ers whose parents bought the VHS because, well … Disney. And it’s a good thing because the film is one of the bright spots of Disney’s post-renaissance period, specifically because it stands in stark contrast to what for which the studio is best known.
The film has a similar vaudeville / slapstick structure that worked for Hercules, cranked up to 11 and prioritizing oddball humor over anything else. And you can’t discount the film’s chutzpah by eschewing any musical interludes altogether at a time when Disney was cramming Broadway-style princess and hero stories down our throats. Sure, virtually anything can be turned into a meme today, but The Emperor’s New Groove is the king of Disney memes. That’s no accident, as the film is one of the most quotable of Disney’s entire filmography.
What’s going on here?
There’s nobody throughout the Disney canon quite like Kronk. Yes, Disney films are full of comic-relief characters, and lunkhead sidekicks to the villain are a dime-a-dozen. But Patrick Warburton’s lovable goofball creation stood out as the fan favorite from the original film because the character was so fully realized from the get-go. We sympathized with Kronk not only because he was the target of Yzma’s torment so frequently but because he tried so hard and failed so spectacularly.
For a while, I had thought Kronk’s New Groove followed the episodic structure of Disney’s other sequels and began to wonder if I had been duped. The film’s story does feature three separate tales that have a tenuous relationship to each other and are divided almost equally amongst the film’s running time. But, by all accounts, the film wasn’t a last-minute scramble to put out new content. Indeed, Disney successfully built a TV show around the characters that ran for several seasons.
The catalyst of the film is Kronk’s father paying him a long-overdue visit. Afraid that his father will find his adult son with little to show for himself, Kronk sets out to prove he’s got his life together and has all the things he promised to his father — a house on a hill, a good job and a loving family. Somehow this transitions to a flashback wherein Kronk is reunited with Yzma, who’s now a snake oil-selling huckster. She fools him into selling an anti-aging potion to the elderly, which nets Kronk a swanky house but at the expense of the old folks who become so addicted to the potion that they lose their home and clothes. Rudy — the gentleman who “threw off the emperor’s groove” at the outset of the original film — even loves the concoction enough to essentially become Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Anyway, Kronk realizes the error of his ways.
Kronk, as the leader of a squirrel-based scout troop, meets and falls in love with a rival troop leader voiced by Tracey Ullman. Who could love a lovable dope like Kronk? An equally lovable, yet significantly more normal, dope, apparently. This section is the most disposable in that it only sort of relates to the plot at large, but it’s still pretty fun and Warburton and Ullman have decent chemistry. Also, there’s an extended disco sequence for no reason. Finally, in the present day, Kronk’s father approaches and Kronk panics when he realizes he still has none of the things he had promised. This leads to a standard sitcom plot wherein Pacha, Pacha’s wife, Chicha, and just about everyone else in the film tries to cover for him by saying they’re Kronk’s wife and / or children. If you’ve seen any sitcom since 1980, you know how this plotline is going to turn out when it’s introduced in the opening minutes. Still, the jokes come fast and furious, and with a pretty decent hit ratio, so I can’t complain too much.
How much of the original is preserved?
The entire voice cast returns, including John Goodman and David Spade, whose collective lines couldn’t have taken more than an hour to record, and Eartha Kitt as Yzma. Kronk even follows the same framing device, with the in medias res opening, and Kuzco inserting himself for no apparent reason. And though the original film was song-free outside of the Tom Jones opener, Yzma gets her own song during her segment.
The same slapstick humor is front and center from beginning to end here; the only element that’s missing is the original film’s simplicity. The synopsis for The Emperor’s New Groove can be summarized in one sentence: A self-absorbed emperor gets transformed into a llama and must figure out how to fix it with the help of an unlikely ally. Kronk’s plot is much more convoluted. Yes, the structure is almost literally episodic, but even without those episodes, there’s so much more plot within this film that it almost falls apart underneath its own weight.
Does this ruin the original film?
I’ve written extensively on how I have no longstanding allegiances to any Disney property. But I’ve probably seen this original film more than most Disney films from my childhood, as the VHS was on heavy rotation during family road trips on our portable TV. Was I pre-destined to enjoy Kronk’s New Groove more because of my pre-existing relationship with the source material? Most likely, but the film’s incredibly specific style and humor can’t be denied.
It’s insane to think of what The Emperor’s New Groove could have been when compared with what we got. Disney originally envisioned the project as a sort of Prince and the Pauper tale set in an ancient Incan civilization until Randy Fullmer and Mark Dindal were brought in to salvage it after Roger Allers exited. By the early 2000s, Disney already had plenty of self-serious period-fantasy tales. And though both Disney and Pixar have released plenty of funny movies in the intervening years, they have yet to release another film that places the humor above everything else.