Welcome to Disney’s identity crisis.
The Emperor’s New Groove began production while the studio was focused on Mulan and Tarzan. It was originally supposed to be called Kingdom of the Sun and was supposed to be a moral tale based on The Prince and the Pauper. The tone was supposed to be similar to The Lion King, where the egotistic Emperor Kuzco swapped places with a villager who looked like him, both learning lessons in the process. Sting was even hired to produce the sweeping ballads that would do for Kingdom of the Sun what Elton John did for The Lion King.
To state the obvious: That’s not the movie that was eventually made
By the summer of 1998, the love interest was ditched, Yzma’s plan to blot out the sun was gone and the new film was a buddy flick to be made without Sting’s involvement at all. Instead of a drama, it was now a light-hearted comedy.
All of these rapid-fire changes came at a time in the studio’s life when nobody really seemed to know what was coming next. While Mulan and Tarzan followed the formula, the failure of Kingdom of the Sun to materialize betrayed the lack of direction the studio’s film division had coming out of the animation renaissance.
While the renaissance produce amazing pieces of art, and incredible revenues, the formula that many of those pictures relied on had grown tired. And Disney had nothing left up their sleeve to replace it. What follows is a period in the studio’s history where they try to expand their horizons, try new things and end up going in several different directions at the same time. Renewed emphasis is placed on experimentation.
For Kingdom of the Sun, a dramatic musical didn’t fit the tone the studio was developing for itself anymore. So they decided to follow a tone that had worked well with Aladdin: The buddy comedy. And it succeeded here, too.
The Emperor’s New Groove, as it became known, follows Incan Emperor Kuzco as his vanity and cruelty slowly give way to friendship and empathy as he is transformed into a llama by a conniving sorceress and saved by a villager. The re-write of the script was for the best since the result is a fan favourite in the modern Disney canon. The well-produced script, the well-constructed characters, the one-liners, David Spade’s delivery and John Goodman’s deep sympathetic voice make for another of Disney’s classics that people are still excited to see today.
The Emperor’s New Groove is a notable success story on a film that had a rocky start and had to be started again, almost from scratch. The last time that happened, they got Beauty and the Beast. This time, they got an island of greatness in an increasingly rocky ocean of uncertainty. The five years to come would bring more rocky shores than welcoming ports, though, as Disney Feature Animation tried once again to define itself in an increasingly crowded market.
The New York Times said it was notable because it reminded viewers that animation doesn’t need to be a grandiose-computer-animated Broadway-like production to bring a simple smile to children’s faces. While that paper wasn’t about to call a movie like Emperor’s New Groove art, it does allow some fun:
If The Emperor’s New Groove ultimately doesn’t amount to much, its brand of mindless fun is easier to like than the morally freighted humor of many more expensive animated films that take their allegorical pretensions far too seriously.
The box office agreed with the fun part. Opening weekend, it came in fourth place behind Dude, Where’s My Car and What Women Want. As with most Disney films, though, the proof is in the staying power. Thought it was released on Dec. 15, 2000, it ended up being the second-highest grossing family film of that year, coming in behind Chicken Run, which had been released in June.
Kuzco, for all the trouble bringing him to screen, stands out as the first big success for the company in the new millennium.