A lot of Disney’s animated films are overrated; some wildly so. Both Frozen movies are, so is Beauty and the Beast and, let’s be frank, Aladdin. But there are a couple which don’t get the credit they deserve. One of those is the forgotten gem The Emperor’s New Groove.
Let’s get some of the possible criticism out of the way up front. Okay, there isn’t much music, and if that’s important to you in your Disney, fair enough. Maybe you’re not thrilled that David Spade is one of the lead voice-actors? Grow up; he does a fine job and is well-cast in his role. Also, there are some serious plot holes, but if you’re coming to a Disney animated film for strict narrative consistency, well that seems like a reason for some introspection on your part.
The movie follows a pretty simple plot, at least in the broad strokes: spoiled royal learns virtue and humility through adversity and companionship with a noble peasant. The genius is in the details and in the characters. There’s no romantic element to the plot beyond the peasant Pacha’s love for his wife and family. (This despite a feint in the beginning perhaps making you think it’ll be about finding a bride for the emperor.) The whole story is set in a sanitized version of an Incan kingdom. The title character, Kuzco, is turned into a llama (though this is a mistake, murder was the intention) when the evil vizier’s genial sidekick mixes things up while attempting to poison Kuzco during the vizier’s coup attempt. Yzma, the vizier, is voiced by the late Eartha Kitt and her, uh, companion(?) Kronk is the hilarious Patrick Warburton.
A bare-bones description of the plot seems a little heavy for a children’s movie, but the comic tone and rapid-fire jokes keep it from being even as somber as other Disney films from the same period. Things like the overt silliness of Kronk caring more about the meal he’s made and how Kuzco and Yzma like it than about whether he carries out his mission to poison the emperor keep it light. There is a similar effect later with the perils of navigating the jungle; friendly squirrels, silly narration and so forth is enough to keep even small children from feeling frightened.
Once Kuzco is a llama, a series of comic mishaps leads him to rely on the help of Pacha to recover his humanity and his throne. The irony (and humor) is that Kuzco had previously told Pacha that he was going to use eminent domain to seize his house and build his summer palace on the location. Because of course he did. The Disney™ moral and “heart” of the film derive from this lesson learned about being fair and kind, but the humor and primary appeal come from absurd situations peripheral to the primary plot. It is not too unlike a Marx Bros. film in this way. This plays faster and looser than even many other animated movies, but you’re not here for a movie with tight continuity anyway.
Ignore any and all direct-to-video sequels.