Disney’s recent animated features have settled into a formula – a likable lead character is forced into an adventure that also becomes a journey of personal discovery accompanied by cute and lovable sidekicks and the story stops every eight minutes for a song and dance number while the sharp and pointy villain outwits the protagonist until the final scene when that bad guy is vanquished. Buy the plush figures, buy the toys, buy the action figures, buy the video game and don’t forget to get that kickin’ soundtrack with that familiar pop singer who has been out of the spotlight lately. Got the picture? Most agree that Disney’s formula felt stale with the release of the disappointing “Hercules,” so what to do? How about a good ol’ buddy movie? “The Emperor’s New Groove” does have all the familiar elements of that Disney formula, however, a group of talented animators working for the Mouse have taken a baseball bat and beaten it into a pulp and reformed it into something that is fresh and damn fun.
Set sometime in South America’s past, a young, spoiled and arrogant emperor Kuzco (David Spade) makes the fatal mistake of firing his advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt). Yzma then hatches a plot to kill the emperor with the help of henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton). Just before dinner, Kuzco meets simple peasant Pacha (John Goodman) and informs his subject that his house on the hill will be torn down to make room for a royal swimming pool. Pacha is devastated but Kuzco could care less. At dinner, Yzma and Kronk poison the emperor but the watered-down formula simply turns him into a llama. The llama escapes near death and meets up with Pacha who refuses to help the former emperor over the little detail of demolishing his home. They form a loose partnership and race back to the city to restore Kuzco to the throne.
At its heart, this is a buddy comedy that works on all levels. There’s great situational comedy especially at a diner in which Kronk juggles kitchen orders at high speed. The chemistry between Goodman and Spade is surprising considering their dialog was recorded separately. The two make such a great comedy duo, they should consider doing a live action film together. Simply put, David Spade is on fire the whole movie resulting in tons of belly laughs! The film even breaks down the fourth wall when Kuzco stops the film and appears to remind the audience that this movie is all about him. It’s a hilarious moment and completely consistent with Spade’s llama/emperor character. Patrick Warburton is another standout as the muscle-bound bone-head Kronk – every line delivered is goofy fun. The only weak link might be the villain-diva Yzma, who was originally to be played by Barbra Streisand. I can’t think of a better female villain than Barbra in real-life, much less as an animated Disney evil-doer. (I’d love to see those rejected designs – just think of the nose!) To top it all off, “Groove” is short, just over 70 minutes and it feels just right. The story ends triumphantly and credits role – there’s no hanging around for yet another unnecessary tune for the soundtrack. “Groove” is not to be missed for Disney-philes and animation fans — great stuff that will satisfy all demographics of kids and adults. This could end up as a popular new formula for Disney, just please don’t abuse it like the old one.