Twenty Years Later, Is 'The Emperor's New Groove'... A Classic? : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Emperor's New Groove came out 20 years ago, during a time when Disney's animation department was going through an identity crisis. The plot is simple: David Spade is a bratty emperor. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton turn him into a llama. And John Goodman is the peasant who helps make things right. It was originally gonna be an epic musical, but then it became a comedy, a box-office disappointment, and now, we would argue, a beloved classic.
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Twenty Years Later, Is 'The Emperor's New Groove'... A Classic?

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Twenty Years Later, Is 'The Emperor's New Groove'... A Classic?

Twenty Years Later, Is 'The Emperor's New Groove'... A Classic?

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

"The Emperor's New Groove" came out 20 years ago, during a time when Disney's animation department was going through an identity crisis. The movie was originally going to be an epic musical, but then it became a comedy, a box office disappointment and now, we would argue, a beloved classic.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The story's simple. David Spade is a bratty emperor. Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton turn him into a llama. John Goodman is the peasant who helps make things right.

And I'm Glen Weldon.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today we are talking about "The Emperor's New Groove" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Also with us from her home in Oakland is our own Aisha Harris. Hi, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen.

THOMPSON: It's great to have you here. So we pretty much laid out the plot of "The Emperor's New Groove" in the intro. It's your standard selfish, rich teenager learns to be virtuous after being turned into a llama story.

But this is a curious little 82-minute movie. It was supposed to be this serious, dramatic musical, and then it became neither a musical nor a drama. It was supposed to have a bunch of Sting songs. But in the end, it just gets one deeply boring Sting song that they just kind of slap over the closing credits. It changed directors. The production was so troubled that there is an entire documentary that is very hard to find called "The Sweatbox" about how troubled it was. That is not on Disney+.

So why is "The Emperor's New Groove" so good? Aisha, I'm going to start with you.

HARRIS: I think the reason why "The Emperor's New Groove" is so good is because it feels unlike so many of the other Disney animated movies that came before it. There is a sort of zany quality to it that I guess in some ways echoes "Aladdin" but in a more directly "Looney Tunes" way. In fact, that's often the comparison we see - is this comparison to, like, the Chuck Jones animated films and shorts that preceded it.

I think another thing that makes the set stand apart from the other Disney animated films is that the protagonist Kuzco, voiced by David Spade, is very much a tool. He's a terrible person. He is sort of a mirror image of Yzma, the villain of the movie. But, you know, he's the one who changes and evolves. And the fact that this story is specifically about him - there have been other Disney animated characters who are kind of cads or scoundrels, whether it's like Tramp from "Lady And The Tramp" or even Aladdin had a little bit of that - you know, like, the street rat quality. But they're all genuinely, like, good at heart. And Kuzco just revels throughout, like, most of the movie as this terrible, horrible person who eventually evolves.

And I think that's kind of one of the things that makes it so good is that it has that, like, bitter quality to it that is, you know, balanced by Pacha, who was voiced by John Goodman.

WELDON: Yeah. I'm going to just double down on everything Aisha just said. This is Disney as a "Looney Tunes" short. There are plenty of sight gags - very Tex Avery, Chuck Jones sight gags - and plenty of jokes. But upon rewatching right now, what struck me is how many of those jokes are simply attitudinal, which means they depend entirely on the voice cast putting them over. And you can tell from the jump - the old man who gets thrown out of the tower and then warns Pacha, I threw off the emperor's groove.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE")

JOHN FIEDLER: (As Old Man) I threw off the emperor's groove.

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Pacha) What?

FIEDLER: (As Old Man) His groove - the rhythm in which he lives his life, his pattern of behavior - I threw it off, and the emperor had me thrown out the window.

GOODMAN: (As Pacha) Oh, really? I'm supposed to see him today.

FIEDLER: (As Old Man) Don't throw off his groove.

GOODMAN: (As Pacha) Oh. OK.

FIEDLER: (As Old Man) Beware the groove.

GOODMAN: (As Pacha) Hey, are you going to be all right?

FIEDLER: (As Old Man) Groove.

WELDON: That is the late great actor John Fiedler. Look this guy up on Google. You've seen him in everything. And I was thinking about that because I just watched "John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch." Hear me out. Follow me. Follow me here. There's a sketch in there. It's a focus group of 11-year-olds or whatever; I don't know kids. And John Mulaney is a studio executive. He goes in and he says, who knows who did the voice of Benji the cockatiel? And the entire group of these kids just says, Mark Ruffalo at the same time. And then one kid is like, couldn't tell if it was Elizabeth Banks or Anna Kendrick. And this one kid, my favorite kid, is like, (imitating lisp) I recognized Mandy Patinkin immediately. As soon as he exhaled through his nose, I turned to the man sitting beside me and I said, that's our Mandy.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: And the joke there is like, what do these kids care? Why do you bother getting name actors to do these voices? This film contradicts that because no animated film before or since has so perfectly captured and made such great, efficient use of our collective understanding of who these actors are - you know, not who they are as a person, but who they are as a public persona.

Kuzco is David Spade, you know, as he exists in the cultural mindset, you know? And you make the insufferableness of David Spade not insufferable by steering into the insufferable skid. And Pacha is who we think John Goodman is. And John Goodman is Pacha. And we don't know who Patrick Warburton is, you know, at his essence, really. But we suspect that if you put everything aside, he is Kronk - just that guy. And of course, Eartha Kitt is Yzma. There is a - that Venn diagram is an overlapping circle.

And that's important because when you write to who your actors are essentially at their core, that means the cast doesn't have to push it. Eartha can come in and be at 10, like (imitating Eartha Kitt) pull the lever. She can be there. But then two seconds later, she can come back and go, why do we even have that lever?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE")

EARTHA KITT: (As Yzma) Pull the lever, Kronk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KITT: (As Yzma, yelling) Wrong lever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASH)

PATRICK WARBURTON: (As Kronk) Huh?

KITT: (As Yzma) Why do we even have that lever?

WELDON: There is something so wise and smart about how they use these actors.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I agree completely. And I mean, you mentioned the late, great Eartha Kitt. Can we just play a little clip of my - not only my favorite moment in this wonderful movie, but one of my favorite moments in any movie ever? Hit me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE")

KITT: (As Yzma) Ah, how does shall I do it? Oh, I know. I'll turn him into a flea - a harmless little flea. And then I'll put that flea in a box. And then I'll put that box inside of another box, and then I'll mail that box to myself. And when it arrives (cackling), I'll smash it with a hammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMER SMASH)

KITT: It's brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, I tell you. Genius, I say.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID POURING, EXPLOSION)

THOMPSON: First of all, you can hear not only that absolutely fantastic Eartha Kitt performance - I mean, you talk about commitment - but you hear all the little sounds around her. Aisha mentioned "Looney Tunes" cartoons. I mean, the Chuck Jonesiness (ph) of this movie is not just in the joke density - it's just in the tone overall. And - it's an 82-minute movie. And I mean, it's even shorter than that when you lop off the closing credits, which I highly recommend for reasons we'll get into in a moment (laughter). But just the speed with which this movie operates - the efficiency with which it operates is just so incredibly refreshing.

The other thing that I want to say upfront is so many of these movies - and, you know, this movie came out in 2000. It was after the first couple of "Toy Story" movies. To me, a lot of Pixar movies - as much as I love Pixar movies, a lot of them have third-act problems. A lot - like, "Wall-E" I think especially, where, like, suddenly you have to get into the mechanics of resolving the plot. And so you have to tick off all these very formulaic boxes of resolving the plot. And that will often bog down a piece of storytelling.

In this movie, the third act is somehow the most joke dense and the most vibrant. You have this climactic action, and it is just throwing laughs at you as quickly as you can take them. And that, to me, is remarkable.

WELDON: One thing, though - when we talked a while back about "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and "The Legend Of Korra," we talked about how respectful those shows felt toward the Asian culture that it was kind of mapped on top of.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

WELDON: Here's the exact opposite. I mean, the Incan Empire stuff here is pure window dressing. It is unnecessary. And, you know, this film could have been made about, you know, a studio executive who wanted a place in Malibu...

THOMPSON: Right.

WELDON: ...Because so much of the sensibility is snarky Southern California, like, latter day. The Incan Empire stuff just kind of lands there. It's pretty, but it's not there for any particular reason.

HARRIS: It's also interesting to see that coming off of "Pocahontas" a few years earlier because with that movie, I mean, there are tons of problems with "Pocahontas" as a historical fiction and the way in which it depicts Native Americans and Indigenous people. But they did do - sort of similar to what they did with "Moana" and other more recent films, they did have, you know, outside counsel to come in and sort of advise while they were making that film. It seems like here with this movie, they didn't do any of that; they didn't bother. And like, maybe it's because it's - it was meant to be - eventually, it wound up being just a straight-up comedy. That's - they didn't take it nearly as seriously.

It is, like, the one part of this movie that is kind of hard to to stomach. But at the same time, it's just still so funny that I kind of have to just, like, let it wash over you and acknowledge, obviously, that it's problematic. And if it was made today, we wouldn't want that at all. Like, even the humor of it, I think, would fall flat because of all the conversations we're having around representation.

THOMPSON: I do think that problem is somewhat of a byproduct of the making of this film. To me, watching this movie, I watched this movie for the first time years and years after it came out and really wasn't even aware of the problems that went into making it. I mean, it was years in development - all of the - you know, changing directors. They completely ripped this thing down to the bones and beyond and built it back up. I didn't really feel that until I got to the closing credits and you get to this lugubrious, just leaden song by Sting, which was nominated for an Oscar. But it was like, why is Sting singing this drab song that just seems to have nothing to do with the movie?

And that's when I kind of reverse-engineered and did the research and was like, oh, this was originally supposed to be this big epic that was going to be, I think, more about this region and this time and was going to tell just more of the sweeping story, and it was going to have all these Sting songs, only one of which they actually kept in the movie. And I think in the process of stripping out a bunch of songs, in the process of stripping away a lot of probably details about the setting and stuff, you just wind up with, like, well, it's kind of set here in this time and place because it sort of has to be, I guess. Like you said, Glen, just completely reset it someplace else. This movie was originally going to be called "Kingdom Of The Sun," which - it is now called "The Emperor's New Groove."

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: I'm not sure - as much as that title was a little bit of a turnoff to me in 2000, I'm not sure we'd be talking about it in 2020 if it were called "Kingdom Of The Sun."

HARRIS: It's interesting because I remember when this movie came out. I was 12. Yes, I was 12. When it first came out, I liked it. It felt too much - too different from the other animated movies, and it just didn't speak to me in that way. And as I've grown older, I feel like I've joined that chorus of people online, especially those who like to share the memes and whatnot, who really love this movie in a similar way that there's, like, this cult following for "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which it was - like, it technically wasn't Disney. But it was released under Touchstone Pictures, which was a distributor of Disney, and Disney still owns it. And like, if you go to the theme parks, they still have, like, lots of "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise. In fact, the last time I was there, I bought some.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But it's weird that, like, "Emperor's New Groove" doesn't actually have a real presence in any of the theme parks. It kind of lives online and from, like, a very small group of people who are just really enthusiastic about it.

WELDON: Yeah, it lives online, I think, because it is very meme-able (ph). And you've seen plenty of memes on it. I think it also benefits from home viewing. This was one of the first Disney films that kind of wasn't about sweeping epic storytelling and wowing you with visuals that you'd want to see on a large screen. This film is about dialogue. This film is about jokes. And it's also about very familiar kind of sight gags - all the stuff with the jaguars and being tied to the tree and falling down the chasm - that we are used to seeing in "Looney Tunes" cartoons at home on your television. So I think it just fits where we are today in a way it probably didn't fit - if you went to a theater and sat down and saw this on a big screen, you'd probably be thinking, this is too small. This does not conform to my idea of what a Disney animated film is.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I would have only gone to the theater for Sting songs.

WELDON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: What the deal with Disney songs in, like, the late '90s and early aughts? You go through those movies. And it's like the song - the big song from "Hercules" was by Michael Bolton. The big songs from "Tarzan" were by Phil Collins. This was supposed to be Sting songs. I guess Elton John and "The Lion King" just made them think that that was the beat they had to hit every time.

I have one last question, and I think I might know the answer. But, you know, there have been so many Disney live-action remakes of those, like, '90s classics. Do you guys want to see a live-action remake of "The Emperor's New Groove"? Aisha.

HARRIS: No (laughter), not at all. I mean, can you imagine trying to do that?

WELDON: There was a Saturday morning cartoon called "The Emperor's New School," which had a sound-alike for David Spade, but it was Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton because, of course, they could do it.

THOMPSON: They couldn't get David Spade.

WELDON: They couldn't get David Spade. That's how long ago it was. And, you know, it was like, I think two or three seasons, and it was not particularly well-received. But they've already kind of played out this premise as much as they can. I can't see it coming back, and I can't see it working live action at all.

THOMPSON: Yeah, strong, strong agreement here. It's not perfect the way it is, but close enough to perfect to me. "The Emperor's New Groove" is now on Disney+, and I just keep coming back to it again and again, probably about once every month or two.

We want to know what you think about "The Emperor's New Groove." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. When we come back, it'll be time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - What's Making Us Happy - so stick around.

THOMPSON: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It is time, once again, for our favorite segment of this week and every week - What's Making Us Happy This Week. Aisha Harris, what is making you happy this week, buddy?

HARRIS: (Laughter) Well, as some listeners may know, especially if they follow me on Twitter, I am a dog lover. My partner and I just adopted a second dog into our home, and she's amazing. Her name is Liz Lemon (laughter). And so the thing that's making me happy this week is a new show on Amazon called "The Pack." Linda actually referenced it in her newsletter last week, and I started watching it. I'm only about two episodes in, so please no spoilers as to who wins. But it's basically "The Amazing Race" with dogs (laughter).

And so these dog owners who are super close to their pets. They are traversing the world on different - in different countries, different continents and performing different agile tasks and different things together. And it's just really fun to watch these very, very adorable dogs. The editing is fantastic. There's a lot of close-ups and slow motion. There are fun games and lots of ziplining, and there's boats. And there's all these things that are happening. There's competition, but it's not mean and catty. So if you like something delightful and fun, I highly recommend the show. It's all about bonding. Every single person in this show is talking about how much they love bonding with their dog or their pet, and there's a lot of great backstory. And it's just fun and light and a great way to spend a few hours. So I highly recommend "The Pack" on Amazon.

THOMPSON: So if you love "The Amazing Race" but wish they replaced bickering couples with dogs...

HARRIS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...This is the recommendation you. Thank you, Aisha Harris.

Glen Weldon, what's making you happy this week?

WELDON: Well, we've talked about Ali Wong's comedy specials in the past on this show. Last year, she came out with a book called "Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice For Living Your Best Life." We listened to the audiobook on a long trip, and it's great. It's basically exactly what it says on the cover, a series of essays directed at her two now very young daughters about life advice. But it's also a memoir. It's a combination of both those things.

Ali Wong has such a clear, sharp, finely delineated comic voice, comic persona that sometimes you forget that there's a person underneath that. You run the risk of forgetting that. This book shows many facets of her. She's a little bit more of a rounded character, a real person with a beating heart. And it's very funny at the same time. So I recommend that. That's "Dear Girls" by Ali Wong.

THOMPSON: Wonderful. Thank you, Glen Weldon. What is making me happy this week is a fantastic piece of music writing in Pitchfork by one of their staff writers, Jenn Pelly - also one of our favorite occasional contributors to NPR Music. She's a phenomenal writer. I recommend everything she writes. She has a piece that went up recently called "Meet Shameika Stepney, Inspiration To Fiona Apple On 'Fetch The Bolt Cutters.'" What it does is it tracks down the real Shameika from the song "Shameika" on this new Fiona Apple record. And as the story in the song goes, Fiona Apple was being bullied. She was in third grade. And one of her classmates, somebody she didn't really know, intervened and sat her down and said, listen; you have potential. And so the chorus to the song goes as follows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAMEIKA")

FIONA APPLE: (Singing) Shameika said I had potential. Shameika said I had potential. Shameika said I had potential. Shameika said I had potential.

THOMPSON: So "Shameika" is one of the standouts on this record. It's a really terrific song. But this story manages to go through and not just tell the story of the song "Shameika," not just tell the story of how Fiona Apple felt about this interaction and about writing this song, but really digs into the life and story of Shameika Stepney and goes into some of the details of the way that their real-life friendship has formed in the wake of this song.

And if you are somebody who is emotionally overwhelmed by stories of, like, small acts of kindness, if you are overwhelmed by stories about kids showing uncommon grace at surprising times, I found this story deeply, deeply moving. And it is wonderfully written. Again, that is a piece in Pitchfork called "Meet Shameika Stepney, Inspiration To Fiona Apple On 'Fetch the Bolt Cutters.'" It's so, so good.

So that's what's making me happy this week. If you want links for what's making us happy plus some exclusive recommendations, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me @IDislikeStephen. You can follow Glen @GHWeldon, and you can follow Aisha @CraftingMyStyle. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy @Jessica_Reedy and producer Candice Lim @TheCandiceLim. You can follow producer Will Jarvis @WillyFrederick. You can follow producer Mike Katzif @MikeKatzif. That's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now.

Thanks to you both for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all right back here next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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