Cult Movies

Cult Movie Essentials: The Emperor’s New Groove

While the title of the film derives from that of the popular Danish fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes has more in common with a Looney Tunes or Tex Avery cartoon than a traditional Disney film. The film took shape over a troubled six-year period and during that time  was altered significantly from its original concept as a more traditional Disney musical entitled Kingdom of the Sun. in the wake of Elton John’s success with The Lion King’s soundtrack, po-faced eco-grump Sting had been assigned to write several songs for the film. Thankfully the world was spared this as the film’s development suffered from several attempts at trying to make the plot more original, and also from a general lack of direction. Upper management felt the plot was too similar to any number of other “Prince and Pauper” stories, and test screenings of the work-in-progress generated poor feedback. Disney hired Mark Dindal, director of Warner Bros comedic animated musical Cats Don’t Dance, in hope that he would be able to punch-up their epic, yet uninvolving, story. The result was that Dindal and Lion King director Roger Allers essentially began making two separate films, with Dindal pushing his scenes toward comedy and Allers pushing his toward drama.

Disney chief Michael Eisner and his studio executives were not pleased at the uneven story, the lukewarm test-audience response, and the slow pace of production. However, the executives were at first reluctant to intervene because of Allers’ success with The Lion King, which had also had a troubled time in production. In addition, most of Allers’ crew had complete faith in the director, who was determined to create a sweeping epic on the scale of The Lion King.

By the summer of 1998, it was apparent that Kingdom of the Sun was not far along enough in production to be released in the summer of 2000 as planned. At this time, one of the Disney executives stormed into Randy Fullmer’s office and, placing his thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart, angrily remarked that “your film is this close to being shut down”. Fullmer approached Allers, and informed him of the need to finish the film on time for its summer 2000 release (crucial promotional deals with McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and others were already established and depended upon meeting that release date). Allers acknowledged that the production was falling behind, but was confident that, with an extension of between six months to a year, he could complete the film. When Fullmer denied Allers’ request for an extension, the director quit the project.  

Eisner, hearing Allers had quit, became furious, and gave Fullmer two weeks to prove the film could be salvageable or else Eisner would personally shut down production. Fullmer and Dindal halted production for six months to retool Kingdom in the Sun, while their animators were reassigned to work on the Rhapsody in Blue segment of Fantasia 2000. In the interim, Dindal, Fullmer, and writers Chris Williams and David Reynolds overhauled the film completely.

When work on the film resumed, it had a new title and a new story. Now the film was a buddy movie. Sting’s songs, related to specific scenes that were now gone, had to be dropped. Sting was bitter about the removal of his songs (which are available on The Emperor’s New Groove soundtrack album). “At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance.”

In my book the fact that the film angered Sting so much is reason enough for the film to be deemed a classic yet it delivers in other ways too. Instead of the old Disney anti-family stereotypes (feeble or overbearing father, absent or irrelevant mother, etc.) we got an irreverent, postmodern take on the Disney genre. Eartha Kitt is hilarious as a Cruella de Vil-like villainess, and Patrick Warburton as her henchman Kronk nearly steals the show — except the whole cast is so spot-on. The fast-paced humour targets kids and adults alike, and there’s more than a touch of Chuck Jones in the whimsical animation.

It is movie of minimum schmaltz and maximum sharp humour, and is great if you like David Spade’s acidic, sarcastic style. Spade plays his role to perfection, and never crosses the line into being obnoxious. The burning sarcasm of his emperor’s character certainly isn’t found in any other Disney. The arc of the story may be predictable, but it’s balanced out by some marvellously unpredictable flashes of comedy. The visuals are glorious as usual with the Peruvian countryside and jungles looking lush and green with rolling hills, deep valleys and blue waters. On the flip side the royal palaces and temples are adorned with beautiful symmetric carvings in the walls, massive angular sculptures and lots of uniform guards. The colourful visuals, quirky unconventional artistic style, brisk pace and amusing llama characterisation by Spade are all winners. Of course by the end The Emperor has learnt his lesson in humility and how to be a nice guy and not just thinking about himself all the time. Yeah there’s always a moral in every Disney flick, you just can’t escape them.

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