Most Disney animated films are timeliness affairs. If you ever just want to unwind and fill your brain with whimsy and magic, Disney is your go-to for entertainment. Sure, most of their practices are questionable at best and yield questionable results, but when Disney is left to create original animated features, they’re one of the best in town. Yet some of their movies are overlooked. Nearly all of their films from the 2000s are underrepresented and barely get mentioned. This is a shame because that means that people aren’t giving The Emperor’s New Groove the love that it deserves.
The 2000s were a weird time for Disney as a creative entity. Faced with a rival in the form of Dreamworks, most of Disney’s animated fare seemed to come across as too cliched and trying to play catch-up to what Dreamworks had on offer. Dreamworks was seen as having a bit more edge to it, mocking the squeaky clean demeanor of Disney with one that wasn’t afraid to curse or give the odd fart joke. Disney, on the other hand, was pumping out movie after movie that either underperforming at the box office or did horrible critically. Sometimes both.
Disney, specifically Walt Disney Animation Studios, released 12 films from 2000-2009, more than any other decade in their existence. They were pumping out content at an absurd pace and when making movies at such a fast pace, problems were sure to appear. Whether it be from early experiments with 3D animation (this was before they bought Pixar) or projects in development hell, Disney was seen as becoming irrelevant. I remember being embarrassed to watch Disney movies not just because Dreamworks films were seen as cooler by my friends, but none of the then-new releases appealed to me. I didn’t want to watch Rosie O’Donnel and Dennis Quaid in a musical about cows. That was too kiddy for me and I was a preteen. I was too old for stupid kids’ movies.
But that’s where a film like The Emperor’s New Groove really benefitted. The film served as a bridge from the Renaissance to the then-modern Disney. Disney crafted a movie that appealed to the humor of the time and even over 20 years later, still manages to make me laugh. It’s arguably Disney’s funniest movie, with non-stop jokes and considered more of a comedy than anything else. It wasn’t considered kiddy because it had a certain level of snark to it that was prevalent in Dreamworks films at the time. I didn’t feel ashamed for watching movies like The Emperor’s New Groove.
The story revolves around Emperor Kuzco (David Spade), a selfish and narcissistic prince who wants to demolish the village of a simple llama herder named Pacha (John Goodman) just to build his summer home. Meanwhile, Kuzco fires his advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt), who then attempts to kill him by poisoning him. Thanks to the efforts of her loyal but dumb as rocks assistant Kronk (Patrick Warburton), Kuzco is instead turned into a llama and ends up in Pacha’s village, so the two need to work together to turn Kuzco back into a human with Pacha hopefully convincing Kuzco to build his summer home somewhere else.
The film is an absurdly tight comedy that lasts only around 78 minutes. No frame of it is wasted and with a small cast of only four characters, all of them get a chance to shine. Kuzco is selfish and delightfully mean-spirited. I know that David Spade isn’t everyone’s favorite comedian and his personality can be grating, but he captures the petulance of Kuzco wonderfully. This is the kind of man who throws an old man out of a window for interrupting his theme song.
Pacha serves as the heart of the film, with us seeing how much his village means to him as well as how much he cares for his family. Pacha doesn’t have any real conflict with his wife or children, he just wants what’s best for them but isn’t willing to compromise on his morals to do so. If Kuzco dies then Pacha’s village is saved, but Pacha attempts to rescue Kuzco multiple times and looks out for him whenever danger is around. He doesn’t have to, but he does so because that’s just who Pacha is. He’s a well-natured and responsible father who has a heart that’s as big as he is.
The two really work well off of each other for the entire runtime. They bicker with one another and get on their nerves consistently, but unlike most of the road trips that Disney (and especially Pixar) are fond of, they fight and argue a lot. Kuzco insults Pacha’s failed attempt to save him, Pacha calls out Kuzco on his selfish attitudes, and they physically fight one another when tensions boil over. They’re not just friends because the movie says they are. They earn that camaraderie and it serves to reinforce just how much of a changed man Kuzco becomes.
Then you have Yzma and Kronk, who are such a delightful pair of antagonists that their status in the Disney canon should be far higher than it is. The two are polar opposites of one another. Yzma is vain, manipulative, quick to anger, and a dangerous scientist. Kronk, on the other hand, is a moron. He’s probably the dumbest character Disney has ever made but by God, he is too pure for this world. He’ll do whatever his boss says but he has no self-awareness to the point that he’s more interested in making sure his Spinach Puffs don’t burn in the oven than ensure Kuzco dies. He’s morally conflicted and doesn’t want to actually cause harm to others but he’s so stupid that he often goes along with any plan given to him by Yzma.
The end result is a manic sense of humor that never lets up. Unlike a lot of animated movies from the 2000s, the humor doesn’t feel dated. Most of Dreamwork’s efforts from that same time period have aged terribly, relying on pop culture references that made sense at the time but now just come across as confusing at best and not funny at worst. The Emperor’s New Groove hardly has any pop culture references. The rest come from the performances of the characters, the wackiness of the animation, and the nonsensical nature of the plot.
Animation gives storytellers the ability to craft whatever kind of story they want to tell, which helps especially if you want to make a comedy. I don’t really need to explain why animated characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes are funny. Their physicality and the situations they’re put in allow the animators to just have fun with whatever they want to create. The Emperor’s New Groove understands the pure comic potential of animation and uses it whenever it gets that chance.
From the crazed look in Yzma’s eyes to the madcap roulette of Kronk cooking at a diner to even small visual jokes like Yzma pouring a llama elixir into a potted plant, The Emperor’s New Groove succeeds at making people laugh. Sure, that may be the basic goal for every comedy, but The Emperor’s New Groove is one of those rare comedies that get better the more you watch it. Comedy has the ability to age terribly, not just with humor becoming outdated but because the more you see a joke, the less funny it becomes. When I was growing up, I watched Spaceballs countless times, but nowadays I just don’t find the movie funny anymore. The material to make me laugh is there, but after so many viewings I just can’t laugh at it the same way I did growing up.
The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t really have this problem as it tackles all different kinds of humor. It diversifies its humor instead of focusing on one specific kind, allowing me to enjoy it depending on my mood. Maybe I’ll find Kronk’s sheer stupidity more endearing when I watch it next. Or maybe it’ll be Kuzco’s petulance that makes him one of the best Disney princesses of all time. Or maybe it’ll just be the fourth-wall humor that throws all plot and logic out the window for the sake of a joke. Or maybe it’ll just be the memes that make me laugh. But I’ll laugh.
Comparing the energy here to something like Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, or Bolt isn’t even a contest. While those films feel incomplete and lifeless, The Emperor’s New Groove has energy. I can most certainly appreciate movies like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet for their ambition, but the final products are somewhat divisive and their lows are definitely lower than what The Emperor’s New Groove achieves. Yes, Lilo & Stitch and The Princess and the Frog are definitely enjoyable in their own unique ways, but I need to be in a very specific mood to watch them. I can’t just pop them in on a whim and fully enjoy them, but The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t have that problem. Its brevity is probably its greatest strength, never overstaying its welcome or wearing out the joke.
The Emperor’s New Groove is like comfort food. It’s nothing too terribly complex and isn’t going to redefine your world. It’s nowhere near as good as Disney movies like Beauty & the Beast, Frozen, Fantastia, Zootopia, or even films like The Great Mouse Detective. Yet despite all of that, it’s the one that I return to the most. It doesn’t attempt to be anything more than it is and there’s something to respect about that. Over 20 years after its initial release, it’s still popular in internet culture and it doesn’t come from a place of mockery. I firmly believe it comes from a place of joy because the humor on display is just that good. Which other Disney movies from the 2000s are people still referencing and talking about today with as much passion and joy? Outside of maybe Lilo & Stitch, not much else.