The fast, fun, and funny “Emperor’s New Groove” is sheer delight for the entire family. It deserves to be taken out of the rarified category of “animation” and called what it is — a cartoon. It has more in common with classic Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Road Runner than with Disney animation classics. This is not one of those movies where we see the sun glistening off every leaf on every tree. It has no perky heroine with big hair sitting down in the first half hour to look up into the sky and sing about her dreams. No adorable animal sidekicks to be immortalized on backpacks, lunchboxes, and beanie babies. No soulful romantic duet to be reprised over the credits and nominated for an Oscar. In fact, no love interest at all.
What’s left is nonstop action and comedy. Most important, we get a kind of freewheeling, even improvisational tone that is downright revolutionary for a big holiday theatrical release from Disney, and a very welcome relief after the overstuffed “102 Dalmatians.” The movie even spoofs itself, along with other movies from “The Fly” to “The Wizard of Oz.” This almost casual feel may have something to do with the origin of the movie, which was originally intended to be a much more serious and ambitious story set in the time of the Aztecs. Then they junked the original script, kept the backgrounds, and created an entirely new story to go on top of it.
Now it is the story of a spoiled emperor named Kuzco, hilariously voiced by David Spade with his trademark blend of snarky self-absorption. Kuzco dismisses his advisor Yzma (voiced somewhere between a purr and a growl by Eartha Kitt and looking like an Erte fashion design drawn with a skritchy pen). She decides to poison him. Her dim but muscular sidekick Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton, “Seinfeld’s” Puddy) accidentally gives Kuzco the wrong potion, and instead of being killed, he is turned into a llama. Kuzco needs to get help from a peasant named Pacha (voice of John Goodman) to get his body and his kingdom back. Their adventures almost approach Indiana Jones scale as they go over a rushing waterfall (with sharp rocks at the bottom), get covered with scorpions, cornered by jaguars, and chased by Yzma and Kronk. The animation is fine, but the voice performances are brilliant, especially Spade, who is sensational.
Parents should know that, like most Disney movies, this one has some scary moments, including a nighttime jungle scene reminiscent of the woods at night in “Snow White.” Most of the peril is comic, but it still might be too much for kids under 5.
Point out to kids that Kuzco thinks that all people are selfish — because he is, while Pacha thinks that all people have some good in them — because he does. Parents should ask kids how Kuzco got to be so selfish and why Pacha’s children enjoy squabbling with each other. Families may also want to talk about how Kronk thinks about what to do by consulting the angel and devil on his shoulders. They may also want to talk about how Kuzco and Pacha decide whether to trust one another.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Thief and the Cobbler,” an undiscovered animation gem.