Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Emperor’s New Groove

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Emperor’s New Groove

Year: 2000

Budget: $100 million

Box office: $169.3 million

Plot: Kuzco is the selfish, egotistical emperor of the Inca kingdom. When he fires his conniving adviser Yzma, she, along with her dim-witted henchman, Kronk, plots to take the throne.

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Kuzco meets with Pacha, a kind peasant and village leader, and tells him that he plans to demolish Pacha’s hilltop family home to build himself a lavish summer home called “Kuzcotopia”. Yzma and Kronk plot to kill Kuzco by poisoning him at dinner, but they accidentally give him a potion that transforms him into a llama.

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After knocking Kuzco unconscious and stuffing him in a sack, Yzma orders Kronk to dispose of him. Kronk has a stroke of conscience and saves him, but unfortunately misplaces the sack on a cart belonging to Pacha.

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Pacha returns home, but does not tell his family about Kuzco’s decision. When he wakes, Kuzco blames Pacha for his transformation and orders Pacha to return him to the capital. Pacha offers to do so only if Kuzco changes his mind about Kuzcotopia. Kuzco at first refuses the offer and sets off on his own, but quickly runs afoul of the local wildlife. Pacha arrives to rescue him, and re-iterates his offer. Kuzco accepts Pacha’s help, secretly planning to go back on his word once he is safe.

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The two survive many ordeals in the jungle, and Pacha finds Kuzco has a good side to him underneath his ego. Meanwhile, Yzma has taken the throne, but learns that Kronk failed to kill Kuzco. The two set out to hunt him down.

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Both pairs arrive at a jungle diner at the same time. Pacha overhears Yzma’s plan, and attempts to warn Kuzco when he returns, but he does not believe Pacha, knowing he is loved by his kingdom. However, Kuzco soon overhears more of Yzma’s and Kronk’s scheming. Thinking no one in his kingdom misses him, he leaves the diner on his own, planning on living out his days as a llama. Pacha catches up, still willing to help Kuzco return to normal. Kuzco apologizes for his selfishness and they set off for Pacha’s house to resupply.

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When they arrive, Yzma is already there. Pacha has his family stall Yzma, giving him and Kuzco a head start back to the capital. They find Yzma’s secret lab and numerous transformation potions, including the antidote, but Yzma and Kronk arrive shortly thereafter. Yzma orders Kronk to kill the pair, but he refuses, so she orders her guards to capture them. Pacha grabs a handful of vials and he and Kuzco flee, trying the various vials during their flight to find the one.

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As they are cornered on the ledges of a giant wall structure, they find they are down to two vials. During a scuffle, Yzma falls onto one of the vials and is transformed into a helpless kitten. Kuzco recovers the other vial and drinks it, restoring him to human form.

Later, Pacha is preparing to return to his village, but Kuzco takes Pacha’s suggestion of moving Kuzcotopia over to a neighbouring, unoccupied hill. Some time later, Kuzco joins Pacha and his family at his modest resort. Elsewhere, Kronk has become a scout leader, and trains a new batch of scouts, including the reluctant Yzma, who remains a kitten.

Background:

Kingdom of the Sun was such a heart-breaking experience for me. I put four years of my heart and energy into that one… I was creating an “epic” picture mixing elements of adventure, comedy, romance and mysticism. The head of Disney Features at the time was afraid that we were doing, in his opinion, too many films in the same vein. He was also uncomfortable with the spiritual and cultural (Inca) aspects of it. Hence, he decided to make it a simple slapstick comedy… Would it have worked out if we had had more time? I would hope so, but one can never know these things. – Roger Allers.

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Originally, the film started out being called Kingdom of the Sun. Roger Allers and Matthew Jacobs pitched the project to then-Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner. In 1996, the production crew traveled to Machu Picchu in Peru, to study Inca artifacts and architecture and the landscape this empire was created in. Kingdom of the Sun was to have been a tale of a greedy, selfish emperor who finds a peasant 1 who looks just like him. They swap places like in the novel The Prince and the Pauper. The film was also supposed to feature the voices of Carla Gugino and Laura Prepon. Allies and Mark Dindal were named co-directors.

Allers personally called Sting, to compose several songs for the film.He agreed, but on the condition that his filmmaker wife Trudie Styler could make a documentary of the production”. 2 Sting composed eight songs inextricably linked with the original plot and characters.

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Randy Fullmer 3 approached Allers, and informed him of the need to finish the film on time for its summer 2000 release as crucial promotional deals with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and other companies were already established and depended upon meeting that release date. When Fullmer denied Allers’s request for an extension, the director decided to leave the project.

Fullmer halted production for six months to retool the project. Former late-night comedy writer David Reynolds stated, “I pitched a simple comedy that’s basically a buddy road picture with two guys being chased in the style of a Chuck Jones ‘toon, but faster paced. Disney said, ‘Give it a shot.'” The character of Kronk was added and the emperor’s name was changed from Manco to Kuzco following Fullmer’s discovery of the Japanese slang term “manko,” which translates to “vagina.” Fulmer would inform Sting by telephone that his songs, related to specific scenes and characters that were now gone, had to be dropped. The Prince and the Pauper stories, and Inca mythology were dropped. Kuzco, who was a supporting character in the original story, eventually became the protagonist.

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Animation: Andreas Deja was the initial supervising animator of Yzma, and incorporated supermodeling poses published in magazines in order to capture Yzma’s sultry, seductive persona. Following the production overhaul, Deja declined to return to the film observing his more serious version of Yzma was incompatible with the wackier, comedic tone of the film. Because of the subsequent departure of Deja, animator Dale Baer inherited the character of Yzma, using Eartha Kitt’s gestures during recording sessions.

In addition to drawing inspiration from David Spade during recording sessions, the Kuzco animation team studied llamas at the zoo, visited a llama farm, watched nature documentaries, and even observed the animals up close when they came for a visit to the studio. Animator Bruce W. Smith animated Pacha.

Songs: Sting began to develop schedule conflicts with his songwriting duties interfering with his work on his next album he was planning to record in Italy. After Sting’s songs for Kingdom of the Sun were dropped from the new storyline, Sting remained on the project. The filmmakers had asked Sting to perform the song “Perfect World” for the film, though Sting declined telling them that he was too old to sing it and that they should find someone younger and hipper. They went with Tom Jones. 4 Sting did record the song for the end credits “My Funny Friend and Me.” Disney eventually agreed to allow three of the six deleted songs as bonus tracks on the soundtrack album such as Yzma’s villain song titled “Snuff Out the Light”, the love song titled “One Day She’ll Love Me”, and a dance number called “Walk the Llama Llama”.

Voice Cast:

David Spade as Emperor Kuzco. He started as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. He also appeared in Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, Joe Dirt, Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, Grown Ups, and Grown Ups 2. He has also been part of an ensemble cast of two long-running sitcoms: Just Shoot Me! and Rules of Engagement. John Goodman as Pacha, actor. He is best known for playing Dan Conner on Roseanne. 5 He has appeared in many films by the Coen brothers such as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Inside Llewyn Davis. He lent his voice as Sulley in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc., and Monsters University. He also appeared in Always, The Babe, The Flintstones, Cloverfield Lane, Coyote Ugly, The Artist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Argo, Flight, The Hangover Part III, and Patriots Day.

Eartha Kitt as Yzma. 6 As a singer she is known for her recordings of “C’est si bon” and “Santa Baby”. She starred in 1967 as Catwoman, in the third and final season of the television series Batman. She also played Lady Eloise in the film Boomerang, and Holes. When she reprised the role as Yzma in the animated series The Emperor’s New School, she earned her Daytime Emmy Awards. She posthumously won a third Emmy in 2010 for her guest performance on Wonder Pets. Patrick Warburton as Kronk. He is known for playing David Puddy on Seinfeld, the title role on The Tick, Jeb Denton on Less Than Perfect, Jeff Bingham on Rules of Engagement, and Lemony Snicket on A Series of Unfortunate Events. His voice roles include Joe Swanson on Family Guy, and Brock Samson on The Venture Bros.

Wendie Malick as Chicha. She is known for roles in Dream On, Just Shoot Me!, 7 and Hot in Cleveland. She has also appeared in Scrooged, The American President, Racing Stripes, and Confessions of a Shopaholic. Sir 8 Tom Jones as the Theme Song Guy. He has sold over 100 million records with thirty-six Top 40 hits in the United Kingdom and nineteen in the United States, including “It’s Not Unusual”, “What’s New Pussycat”, “Delilah”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, “She’s a Lady”, “Kiss”, and “Sex Bomb”. He made his acting debut playing the leading role in the 1979 television film Pleasure Cove and played himself in Mars Attacks! 9

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Patti Deutsch as Matta. 10 She was a frequent panelist on the game shows Match Gameand Tattletales. She was a regular performer on This Is Tom Jones and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. She also appeared in the film Mr. Mom. She provided her voice for Jetsons: The Movie, Tarzan, The Land Before Time VII: The Stone of Cold Fire, Monsters, Inc., Capitol Critters, The Wild Thornberrys, and The Berenstain Bears.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert, writing his review for Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars distinguishing the film as “a goofy slapstick cartoon, with the attention span of Donald Duck” that is separate from what’s known as animated features. Ebert would later add that “it doesn’t have the technical polish of a film like Tarzan, but is a reminder that the classic cartoon look is a beloved style of its own.” Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum graded the film a B+, describing it as a “hip, funny, mostly nonmusical, decidedly non-epic family picture, which turns out to be less of a hero’s journey than a meeting of sitcom minds”.

Legacy: In A direct-to-video sequel entitled Kronk’s New Groove was released on December 13, 2005, timed with the premiere of the Disney Channel cartoon series the film is based on called The Emperor’s New School.

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Two video games were developed for the Sony PlayStation and for the Nintendo Game Boy Color.

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The Tokyo DisneySea rollercoaster attraction Raging Spirits took visual inspiration for its Inca ruins theme from the buildings in the film, with a structure based on Kuzco’s palace similarly crowning the ruins site.

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Six launcher toys of Kuzco, Kuzco as a llama, Pacha, Yzma, Yzma as a cat, and Kronk came with Happy Meals at McDonald’s in North America.

My take: I first saw this movie hung over on New Year’s Day and I remember laughing quite a bit. Patrick Warburton is hysterical and there are some tight sequences. The diner bit is particularly funny. It’s very slapstick. I found it very funny.

Next Week: We go under the sea again, but this time with Michael J. Fox.