The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
Yah! A G movie that is genuinely pretty G rated that's not criminally aimed at babies. Okay, it's a little scary. If they branded it with a PG, there are moments that are a little spooky. Like, there's some scary jaguars and bats. Kuzco is more than a little bit of a punk. There's some very questionable behavior on the part of the protagonist, but that's simply because it is his internal conflict. It's G and I'm standing by that.
DIRECTOR: Mark Dindal
I'm flabbergasted that I haven't written about this before. I searched for it and I was sure that I had written about it. You see, a few years ago I tried showing this gem to my kids and they did not care for it. Kids are finnicky like that. This time worked out far better. They have at least some degrees of senses of humor (there's gotta be a better way to say that) and they were able to appreciate the fact that this was just a funny movie.
For some reason, The Emperor's New Groove might be one of Disney's cult movies. I understand a lot of the movies in the Disney archives acting as niche pictures. I'd probably throw a lot of the live action movies in that category. Maybe I'll also throw The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers as well. My only theory is that both The Great Mouse Detective and The Emperor's New Groove are animated features that aren't actually musicals. I'm sure that there's some Disney suit who hears that an animated picture that isn't a musical comes through the pipeline and instantly freezes up. But then again, the Pixar movies do just fine and they aren't musicals. Sure, we have the lovely pipes of Randy Newman on the Toy Story movies, but these aren't diagetic moments in film. Rather there's no music. However, The Emperor's New Groove might be the most rewatchable film in the Disney archives.
A lot of that is subjective. This came out in 2000. I talk a lot about the weird cinematic age that lasted from 1999 to 2002. It was just a weird time to make movies. But The Emperor's New Groove decided to take a different tone than its contemporaries. Perhaps taking influence by the shock culture of Howard Stern and the era of political incorrectness, The Emperor's New Groove feels like a small movie that just really wanted to be its own thing. Its protagonist, Kuzco, is fundamentally unlikable. We've had protagonists before who have unlikable traits, but are mostly heroic. I guess it's not completely its own thing because A Christmas Carol also does this with its protagonist. But The Emperor's New Groove only really winks at its source material compared to the fairly reverent animated version of "A Christmas Carol." But despite having a protagonist that is a huge jerk, the story works really well. Part of that comes from the idea that internal conflicts are always interesting to me.
Kuzco is painted in large swaths. It's not exactly nuance with what is happening in The Emperor's New Groove. He's a jerk. He makes a friend. He's no longer a jerk. But the way that this film is created is what allows for this unlikable character who has fairly simple motivation to stand outside of other characters of his ilk. For those not in the know, Emperor's New Groove plays heavily with metanarrative and breaking the fourth wall. Kuzco acts as a narrator to the events. But similar to a character like Deadpool, he is aware that he is in an animated story for kids. He has very specific knowledge that he should not have. He actually has control over the film. The consequence of this is that Kuzco is able to split himself into separate personalities based on where the narrative falls. As a means to deceive, Kuzco starts the film, as a narrator, commenting on a later element of the story from the point of derision. This creates multiple unreliable narrators. From our initial perspective, we get the Kuzko as introduced in the beginning of the film. He is a braggart who sees himself as the victim of misfortune. Everything is everyone else's fault. But this is oddly telling because he actually despises the character who has some degree of emotional growth. That llama weeping in a storm should cancel out the narrator Kuzco. The narrator, again, is aware that he is in a movie and retelling the events of the story to an audience. This presupposes that the narrator would be telling the story once the events are complete. Wherever the initial Kuzco comes from is an odd anomaly, but one that our brains are completely willing to accept.
But we can't forget that this is a Disney film. Complicated narrators and problematic protagonists aside, the story has a fairly straight forward moral. Playing up the idea of trust and self-sacrifice, Pacha acts as a foil for the selfish Kuzco. It's really weird, because we get that Pacha is completely the model for heroism. He is a loving father. He takes a lot of abuse. He has everything to lose in the story, going as far as being imprisoned for life. But he doesn't always come across as perfectly heroic. There are times where Pacha suffers the same character flaws that Kuzco does. He realizes, as part of the journey, that he must convince Kuzco that his home is not to be demolished in repayment for his friendship. This is Pacha's internal struggle. The moral, upstanding father that Pacha is, he is aware that there is always a risk that all of this will come crashing down on his head. But the movie addresses Pacha's conditional altruism directly. Kuzco calls him out for this duplicitous charity and we actually are forced to look at the bastion of goodness in a different light. I like that Pacha is overall a good guy, but kind of sucks. It's hard to relate to Kuzco. He's a commentary for the rich. The rich probably won't change their behavior based on a viewing of The Emperor's New Groove. However, Pacha acts as far more of an avatar than a talking llama emperor. Pacha knows that he's a good guy, but is forced to reevaluate his decisions in light of confrontation. It seems like I'm doing a deep dive into something that seems pretty common: a character who is not perfect. But usually the character flaw is tied directly to the sense of inadequacy. Instead, Pacha is actually very much the yang to Kuzco's yin. Humanity / llamahood is selfish. It just takes the greater man / llama to place that need in check.
Also, there's never been a better character than Kronk. I have no analysis that's worth its weight in salt for Kronk. I will say that Disney has a history of making fun sidekicks for villains. Okay, mostly I'm just thinking about Iago from Aladdin. But Kronk is straight up a good guy accidentally being a bad guy. I don't think I'm in the headspace to watch the direct to VHS sequel, Kronk's New Groove, but what did it take to get this good human being to be such a great villain. Sure, he's dumb (but that's not even accurate!). But there is this great archetypal commentary by having Yzma juxtaposed with Kronk. It makes Yzma so much better. I actually feel bad for Eartha Kitt because she's so good in this role, but completely overshadowed by Patrick Warburton. I want to say that they are a pair, but Kronk steals every single scene he's in.
I love this movie. Most people love this movie. I actually don't know of anyone who isn't mildly obsessed with this movie. I'm going to hear from people I haven't heard from in years for posting this.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.