This new Disney animated feature, based on an original story by Chris Williams and Mark Dindal rather than on the classic tales the studio has usually favored until now, has its ups and downs. The first forty minutes or so, concentrating on selfish ruler Kuzco (David Spade) who’s turned into a talking llama by his ambitious advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and the uneasy friendship he develops with a open-hearted peasant named Pacha (John Goodman), is nicely-mounted but more than a little pallid. The major problem is that the “heroic” protagonists seem underdone by Disney standards. Goodman, for some reason, is reined in so firmly that surprisingly little of his natural exuberance comes across. Meanwhile Spade, one of the most irritating of contemporary performers (bring on the stun gun!) dominates the proceedings overmuch with his customary snide attitude and tiresome catch phrases–and his shtick gets old pretty quickly. That isn’t to say that the writers and animators don’t toss in some good throwaway gags to liven things up during the first half (many of which, to tell the truth, will tickle grownups more than kids–a reference to the old Vincent Price version of “The Fly” being a case in point). It’s merely that they don’t come as fast or furious as they could (and Spade’s always there to intrude); at times it seems a viewer is back to the bad old days of watching “The Road to El Dorado.”
Fortunately, as the picture reaches its halfway point, more and more attention is shifted to the villains–Kitt’s Yzma, who gets progressively funnier as the movie unspools, and (even better) her dim-bulb henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton). The latter, presented as a absurdly literal but lovable dolt who’s a cooking fool as well as a thoroughly incompetent badguy, steals more and more sequences with his wonderfully inappropriate remarks and nonsensical digressions. And with roughly twenty minutes to go, the picture really takes off in an inventive, elaborate chase sequence that, with its manic, almost surrealistic overtones, really owes more to the old Warner Brothers cartoon tradition (think the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote) than it does to the softer Disney practices of old. And, of course, it caps off things with a good message about abandoning one’s selfish impulses and learning to care about others.
So “The Emperor’s New Groove” may drag somewhat at first, but it builds nicely to an effervescent climax, and though the two buddies at the center of it all leave something to be desired, the villainous pair go far to make up for them. As is usual with Disney, the animation itself is first-rate (although in a conventional, rather quaint style, far removed from the more modern approaches they’ve adopted in other recent efforts). On the other hand, the excellent songs one expects in a Disney animated flick aren’t to be found here; there are two tunes by Sting and David Hartley, one at the beginning and the other near the close, but neither is remotely memorable. (Their mediocrity makes one glad that the original plan for the picture, which envisioned it as a musical drama called “Kingdom of the Sun” with a full score by Sting, was ultimately scrapped.) In this final version, clocking in at a mere 78 minutes (including a long credit crawl), the movie proves uneven, especially in the first half, but it gains momentum as it goes and ends on a rousing high. Family members of varying ages will enjoy different things in it, but by the end there’s something for everyone to like.