“The Emperor’s New Groove” is a delightful, effervescent morality tale for children conveyed with such wit and sophistication that adults are likely to be enchanted as well. In short, Disney’s fabled animation division has done it again, coming up with a treat that arrives just in time for Christmas. Director Mark Dindal, his story co-writer Chris Williams and screenwriter David Reynolds pack an awful lot of holiday cheer in just 81 minutes.
It’s narrated by the emperor (voice of David Spade) himself, who tells us how it happened that he, an Incan-like ruler of limitless power, got turned into a llama; he muses about how someone could ever want to ruin the life of the “nicest guy in the world.”
Not surprisingly, this self-appraisal by Emperor Kuzco might not be shared by everyone. He talks like a Hollywood whiz kid, the kind who lucked out big time, and has become an object of such fawning attention that he has lost all perspective on himself. He could scarcely be more obnoxious yet of course considers himself the coolest dude in the universe.
As it happens, Kuzco has decided to construct a summer villa high on a pinnacle above a deep gorge. It is the site of the cottage home of the good-hearted peasant Pacha (voice of John Goodman) and his sharp-witted wife, Chica (voice of Wendie Malick, a co-star with Spade on the TV sitcom “Just Shoot Me”). When, in an audience with the emperor, Pacha asks him what is to become of him and his family, Kuzco is nonchalantly dismissive: “Don’t know, don’t care.”
In the meantime Kuzco has decided it’s time to get rid of the venerable imperial advisor Yzma (voice of Eartha Kitt), who he senses is encroaching on his absolute power. Chic, cadaverously thin, Yzma is in fact an evil schemer. Yet so out of touch is Kuzco with his true spoiled, petulant self that he can’t imagine anyone ever thinking ill of him, he unhesitatingly accepts an invitation from her--after she’s been fired.
Yzma has foolishly entrusted the concoction of a poison to off the emperor to her sweet-natured but thickheaded muscle stud, Kronk (voice of Patrick Warburton, Puddy of “Seinfeld” fame). The result: Instead of being assassinated, Kuzco is turned into a llama. While he’s stranded in the jungle, who should come to his aid but Pacha, who insists on seeing the good in everyone.
Thus are launched the cliffhanging adventures of the llama and Pacha, as Kuzco in animal form attempts to return to his vast city-state, transform himself back to human form with Yzma’s antidotes and resume his throne. Along the way, as arrogant as Kuzco remains--even as a llama--he’s for sure going to learn some humility from Pacha. Yzma and Kronk are swiftly on the llama’s trail, determined not to let Kuzco get back into his old groove.
Art director Colin Stimpson and his staff traveled to Peru’s Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, but thankfully such a seeming concern for authenticity didn’t keep them from coming up with a domain for Kuzco that would appear to owe more to the heady look and atmosphere of movie palaces of the ‘20s--the Mayan in downtown L.A. comes to mind. Indeed, Yzma, invested with witty hauteur by Kitt, resembles a silent-movie vamp who has lived to a scrawny but indomitable ancient age. The voices and the personalities of the actors fit their animated characters perfectly.
Vast mountain ranges and lush jungles are drawn with the same exotic flair as monumental settings in the Incan manner, and John Debney’s score contributes both to the film’s sense of adventure and its tropical mood. Sting has written some special songs for the film, most notably its catchy theme tune, “My Funny Friend and Me.” Tom Jones sings “Perfect World,” and the filmmakers also incorporate Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema.” “The Emperor’s New Groove” stays as light as a souffle. It has the giddy panache of a ‘30s screwball comedy.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: for the entire family.
‘The Emperor’s New Groove’
David Spade: Voice of Kuzco
John Goodman: Voice of Pacha
Eartha Kitt: Voice of Yzma
Patrick Warburton: Voice of Kronk
Wendie Malick: Voice of Chicha
A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Mark Dindal. Producer Randy Fullmer. Executive producer Don Hahn. Screenplay by David Reynolds; from a story by Chris Williams and Dindal. Editor Pamela Ziegenhagen-Shefland. Music by Sting and James Hartley. Lyrics by Sting. Score composed and conducted by John Debney. Character designer Joseph C. Moshier. Production designer Pasul Felix. Supervising visual effects animators Dorse A. Lampher and David “Joey” Mildenberge. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
In general release.