Why ”The Emperor’s New Groove” doesn’t click with kids
By now, the backstory behind Disney’s latest animated feature, ”The Emperor’s New Groove,” has been widely reported. Originally conceived as a musical epic titled ”Kingdom of the Sun,” it was radically reworked after four years in production and downsized into a jaunty little comedy about a ruler named Kuzco (voiced by David Spade) who’s turned into a llama. Released last month, the movie received surprisingly good reviews and has grossed a solid but unspectacular (by Disney standards) $50 million. There’s only one problem: Kids don’t seem to be digging this ”Groove.”
That’s because – taking a personality cue from star Spade – it’s a bit too hip for the room. In the theater where I saw ”Groove,” the parents chuckled appreciatively at Spade’s snide asides, while the children sat silently much of the time, save the occasional plea of ”Can we go home now?” While the film is refreshingly free of the slapstick sadism that characterizes too many kiddie flicks (e.g., Disney’s ”102 Dalmatians”), its sarcastic tone sails over little ones’ heads.
It doesn’t help that the storyline is rather shapeless. The title suggests ”The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but the plot has nothing to do with that or any other familiar fairy tale. And unlike, say, Elton John and Tim Rice’s ”Lion King” score, the music is mostly unmemorable. A Tom Jones tune (‘cuz kids love Tom Jones!) is wedged into the narrative, and a Sting song, the unfortunately titled ”My Funny Friend and Me,” plays over the closing credits. Six other numbers by the ex- Policeman were reportedly snipped.
The actors do what they can with the material, but much of the humor comes from them playing off their established personas, and most kids won’t have a clue who they are. Though he proves he can wring laughs out of tired one liners week after week on ”Just Shoot Me,” Spade is no Robin Williams (”Aladdin”) or Eddie Murphy (”Mulan”) in terms of voice recognition. As the llama herder who helps Kuzco regain his throne, John Goodman enjoys a nice chemistry with Spade, but the in joke of teaming the late Chris Farley’s partner with another fat guy will be lost on the target audience.
Onetime TV Catwoman Eartha Kitt’s feline purr- sonality infuses the royal usurper Yzma, yet the script oddly obsesses over her character’s wrinkles (implied message: old woman = evil). The most kid friendly character is Yzma’s tall, dumb, and handsome henchman, Kronk, vocally embodied by Patrick Warburton. Since his days as Puddy on ”Seinfeld,” he’s turned into a kind of human cartoon. (He replaced Tim Allen as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Disney’s animated TV spinoff of ”Toy Story” and will play comic book superhero ”The Tick” in a Fox live action series).
For one thing we can be thankful. At least ”The Emperor’s New Groove” isn’t as insufferably self indulgent as David Spade’s last foray into animation, the semiautobiographical NBC toon ”Sammy.” Although I do wish the show hadn’t been canceled before we could see an episode in which Spade’s movie star character is attacked by his personal assistant.