Disney Moves to 'New Groove'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time in a far-off mountain kingdom that sort of resembled pre-Columbian South America, there lived an arrogant young emperor who sort of dressed like an Inca and took pleasure in making everyone's life in the palace miserable.

As fate would have it, this royal brat angered his power-hungry court advisor, who used a magic potion to turn the emperor into a long-necked talking llama.

Such is the curious premise behind Disney's new animated fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Groove," a quirky, buddy-and-the-beast comedy that arrives Friday in theaters nationwide. Did we also mention that the emperor is so mean that he lies to his subjects, hurls insults at a bevy of prospective brides, and tosses an old man out of an upper-story window because he threw off the emperor's style, or in the parlance of the movie, his "groove"?

Featuring the voices of comedian David Spade of the NBC sitcom "Just Shoot Me" as the sarcastic and insensitive emperor, Kuzco; actor John Goodman of "Roseanne" fame as the humble peasant Pacha; and singer Eartha Kitt as the evil advisor Yzma, the film can be viewed either as a refreshing departure from formulaic Disney fables of years past, or as a dramatic break that could leave loyal Disney fans scratching their heads. Either way, the film poses a unique marketing challenge for the studio.

With a price tag of around $80 million, the project has had a long and arduous history. Originally called "Kingdom of the Sun," it was envisioned back in 1994 as an epic romantic drama with a "Prince and the Pauper" theme, complete with an ambitious song score written by Grammy winner Sting in collaboration with musician-composer David Hartley.

But by 1998 the filmmakers realized the project was misfiring. The decision was made to retool the story. Instead of a romantic drama with a grand musical score, it became a comic buddy adventure. The old songs were jettisoned, and Sting agreed to write two new ones--"Perfect World" and "My Funny Friend and Me."

Such a process is a costly one, particularly in animation, where storyboarding is a crucial part of the creative process. But Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Feature Animation, who has supervised such big Disney animated films as "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan," said it isn't unusual for films to go through the drastic make-over that befell "The Emperor's New Groove."

"A movie begins to emerge as you are making it," Schumacher explained. "It's a lot like writing a novel or a play. It takes shape over a long period of time."

Producer Randy Fullmer gave one example of how the original story failed to jell.

"We wanted to set it in the 1400s before the Spanish came [to South America]," Fullmer recalled. "The Spanish brought the wheel, but we had to have a cart on the storyboard. We debated for three hours whether to have a wheel on the cart. At the end of the day, it hit several of us. We are really on the wrong track. We are not trying to make a documentary on the Incas. We are just trying to have fun."

As a result, the movie retains its pre-Columbian flavor but avoids pinpointing an exact culture or people such as the Incas (despite the similarity of the main character's name to that of the Incan capital of Cuzco).

Viewed from one perspective, "The Emperor's New Groove" is an attempt by Disney to think "out of the box" with humor and style that is more contemporary than the studio's traditional offerings. The success of hipper family fare such as Universal's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" could bode well for the studio.

But with a puzzling title, an unfamiliar story line, a vague sense of locale, an unlikable lead character and an arch-villainess who can't begin to compare with the frightening, apple-bearing witch in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the question becomes whether Disney is too far off its usual animated groove.

For instance, in "Mulan," Eddie Murphy's dragon character served as comic relief with his physical humor as well as smart-alecky dialogue. In "The Emperor's New Groove," everybody is comic relief. Indeed, the frenetic pace and wild-eyed humor is so un-Disney at times that some who've seen advance screenings joke that it must have been conceived as a Looney Tunes cartoon at Warner Bros.

Directed by Mark Dindal ("Cats Don't Dance"), the film is spiced with wisecracking dialogue supplied by screenwriter David Reynolds, one of the original gag writers on Conan O'Brien's NBC talk show.

Dindal and producer Fullmer (artistic coordinator on "The Lion King") denied that Disney deliberately fuzzed up the movie's locale or whether the characters were Incas to avoid comparisons to DreamWorks' 1999 animated adventure "The Road to El Dorado," which had a villain based on Spanish explorer Cortes; the film was a critical and commercial disappointment.

"This version was well in the works when that movie came out," Dindal said. "Early on, when our movie got to be very comic, all of us felt that you can't be making this farce about a specific group of people unless we are going to poke fun at ourselves. This didn't seem to be a proper choice about Incas or any group of people. It was more of a fable."

A bigger hurdle was deciding how far to take the emperor's snotty behavior and wisecracking humor.

Dindal said they were encouraged by Disney's top brass, including corporate Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Eisner, Vice Chairman Roy Disney and studio chief Peter Schneider, to "think outside the box."

From a comedy standpoint, Fullmer added, the humor often "went down the path with David Spade."

"We wanted someone who comes across as a little bit obnoxious, and, let's face it, David Spade has sort of that quality," Fullmer said. "His whole comic routine is somewhat edgy and somewhat badly behaved." However, Fullmer noted, "At times, we were pushing it too far and pulled it back. We didn't want to make [Kuzco] so edgy that audiences say, 'We don't like the character and don't care if he ever gets better.'

"It is a bit of a departure to have the main character as spoiled and cantankerous as he is in the beginning, but, in my mind, he displays characteristics that we see on the planet today," the producer explained. "What I think is rewarding is that little kids tune in to the fact that that kind of behavior doesn't work for him.

"I think Mark and I felt very strongly that a movie, when you are working at the Disney Co., ought to have a good character, a good personality. People ought to leave the theater and learn something. A movie should have a moral point of view. I am always happy if kids learn some type of lesson--a good, positive lesson."

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Although the humor may be a step forward for Disney in "The Emperor's New Groove," the look of the film is a step back, in a way. Its angular shapes are along the lines of "Hercules." One of the major inspirations for the filmmakers was the simplistic style of the classic Disney films of the 1950s, particularly "Peter Pan" and "Lady and the Tramp."

"You don't want to introduce deep-focus and visual complexity when comedy is your focus," Fullmer said. "Clearly, we have a candy store [at Disney] of technical things at our disposal. . . . But our feeling was that a lot of films get cluttered visually. There is so much going on on the screen that you miss what is going on with the characters."

Now the question is, can Disney sell this movie?

Unlike the buildup the studio gave this summer to its expensive, computer-animated prehistoric adventure "Dinosaur" and the recent marketing muscle the studio put behind "102 Dalmatians" at Thanksgiving, the release of "The Emperor's New Groove" seems relatively restrained. To begin with, the billboards for the film convey odd messages such as "Llama llama ding dong" and "Nuttier than a holiday fruitcake."

Disney now has a heavy television advertising campaign underway, as well as print advertising and sneak previews around the country. But audiences will not be able to run out to their local Disney store and grab up llama dolls and emperor figurines. Those shelves are already crammed with puppies from "102 Dalmatians." (McDonald's, however, will be offering "Groove" merchandise.)

As for the title, Dindal only vaguely recalls it originated somewhere in Disney marketing, but he is certain of one thing--when kids were asked if they knew what was meant by the word "groove," they understood perfectly.

"There was this controversy about using this word in the title," Dindal recalled. "We had some focus groups that had children 6 to 8 years old in them. They were asked that question and they said, 'You know, the way he lives his life!' . . . Children had no problem defining what that meant. The funny thing was, they said it so matter of fact: 'Who doesn't understand that?' "

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