to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
How to Get Your "Groove" On
of "The Emperor's New Groove" release to retail outlets
week, Jim Hill offers up some insight as to why this funny little
got such a split reception from animation fans.
One of the
more controversial Disney animated films in years -- The Emperor's
New Groove -- has made its debut on home video and DVD.
Groove was a delightful break from Disney's all-too predictable
feature length formula. This time around, there was no horrifying
villain to frighten the kiddies, no drippy ballad that would eventually
be translated into a Top 40 hit as well as no life affirming lesson
that got hammered home in the last five minutes of the film.
The Emperor's New Groove had none of these supposedly redeeming
qualities. It just had laugh after laugh after laugh ...
there were quite a number of Disney animation fans who didn't
seem to get the joke. The Web was awash with complaints from folks
who found themselves unable to get into the "Groove."
Among the more intriguing comments that people made about this
"David Spade's character wasn't very likable."
"The movie moved too fast."
"The plot made no sense."
to the wide range of opinions that my own circle of friends had
about The Emperor's New Groove, I began to notice an interesting
pattern. Those folks who were just fans of the more traditional
Disney animated films (i.e. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,
Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast) seemed to
really dislike The Emperor's New Groove. But those folks
who were just straight-forward animation fans (people who liked
cartoons any way they could get them; whether it be a Disney feature
film, a classic Warners short thrown together by the acknowledged
masters of the form -- Tex Avery, Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones
-- or one of those terrifically new animated TV shows like "Sponge
Bob Square Pants" or "Dexter's Laboratory") were
the ones who seemed most likely to get "Groove."
I'm afraid I fall in the latter category, folks. Personally, I
think that Disney's The Emperor's New Groove is a supremely
entertaining movie. I also believe that director Mark Dindal,
producer Randy Fullmer and the rest of the Groove production
deserve real kudos for pulling off what was once thought impossible:
Taking that anything-for-a-laugh cartoon sensibility that works
so beautifully in shorts and successfully stretching it to fit
the feature length form.
there have been other Disney animated features that had witty
art direction, were fast paced as well as being flat out funny.
John Musker and Ron Clements' Aladdin and Hercules
come immediately to mind. But even those two fleet-footed farces
had to eventually slow down, come back down to earth and service
the plot. Each of those two "Ron Jon" films had prolonged
sequences that clearly demonstrated that the title character had
some redeeming qualities, that he was a person that was worth
caring about, rooting for.
This was a film that seemed to delight in breaking the mold, in
departing from the established formula. And no character better
exemplefied this than Emperor Kuzco himself (voiced by snarky
sitcom star David Spade).
an example of how truly subversive Groove really is? Think
back to that moment in the movie when Pacha has just returned
home after meeting with Kuzco. This good hearted llama farmer
just can't bring himself to tell his wife and his children that
he failed; that the Emperor still plans to tear down their beautiful
little village to build his self-indulgent summer palace.
music playing underneath, Pacha slowly leads Misty -- his lead
llama -- back around to the tumble-down stables that are stashed
beneath his humble home. The dejected peasant doesn't have a clue
how he's going to resolve this horrible situation. The audience's
sympathies are solidly in his corner and then...
SCREECH! The film comes to an abrupt halt. Emperor Kuzco -- in
llama form -- leans in from the side of the frame. He then haughtily
reminds the audience that -- while they may now be feeling sorry
for Pacha at the moment -- it is his character, not the peasant,
that the movie-goers are supposed to be paying attention to. After
re-enforcing this idea by using a red magic marker to circle where
his unconcious body is currently being stashed (inside a burlap
bag on Pacha's cart) as well as repeatedly scribbling over Pacha's
image on the screen, Kuzco finally leans out of the frame and
allows the film to continue.
This is exactly the strange sort of stuff that Groove's
production team delighted in pulling on the film's audience: Building
up their sympathies, then pulling the rug right out from under
them. Sure, there have been other Disney characters who have broken
the fourth wall (example: The Peddler at the opening of Aladdin).
But there has never been one that behaved just like Daffy Duck
or Bugs Bunny did in their old Warners Brothers short, with as
much attitude and edge as David Spade's Emperor Kuzco has.
are the gags that Tex Avery would have loved: That flashback at
the start of the film that went just a little far into the past
(revealing Kuzco as an infant in his crib). Or that camera move
that suddenly puts the audience at the outer-most edge of Kuzco's
kingdom, high up on a tree branch with a monkey. Or -- my personal
favorite -- the moment when Kronk realizes that there's no logical
way that he and Yzma could have beaten Pacha and Kuzco back to
exact quality that made me such a huge fan of The Emperor's
New Groove. Here finally is a Disney film that doesn't make
the same mistake that Pocahontas did of taking itself too
seriously or by trying to be some grandioeus spectacle like
Fantasia 2000. Groove aims low. It just wants to make you
laugh. But it hits the bullseye time and time again.
in the right sort of mood (and -- more importantly -- you don't
have any rigid expectations about how a feature length animated
film from Walt Disney Studios is supposed to look and sound),
The Emperor's New Groove is a really great way to spend
78 minutes. Sure, there are a few gags that mis-fire (I don't
think that anyone outside of WDFA is ever going to understand
the significance of Yzma's "Secret Lab;" particularly
given that Disney disbanded its own "Secret Lab" --
Mickey's in-house CGI & special effects operation -- months
before Groove was released). But if you don't like a particular
joke, don't worry. There'll be another one along in about 30 seconds.
many folks who are particularly deserving of praise on this project
are lead animators Nik Ranieri (Kuzco), Bruce Smith (Pacha), Dale
Baer (Yzma) and Tony Bancroft (Kronk). These are guys who were
working at the very top of their game on Groove, people.
With their backs against the wall, dealing with a tight budget
and an even tighter production schedule, these incredible artists
still managed to deliver the goods. Given the multi-layered performances
that Ranieri, Baer, Smith and Bancroft all managed to pull out
of their characters -- Broadly comic at some plot points, supremely
subtle at others -- this is a film that animation students are
sure to be studying for tips in the future.
the one person who deserves the most credit for Groove's
unique style and tone is the
film's director, Mark Dindal. A former FX wizard for Disney Feature
Animation, Dindal actually got his first shot at directing outside
of the Mouse House -- when Turner Feature Animation hired him
to help fix their then-floundering first feature, Cats Don't
Dance. Given the amazing rescue job that Mark did on that
1997 Warner Brothers release, the Mouse then invited Dindal to
come home and try to bail out another troubled animated project:
"Kingdom of the Sun."
all the behind-the-scenes problems that the production of The
Emperor's New Groove had (and given how widely these stories
have been reported elsewhere), there's really no reason to rehash
them here... Other than to say that -- given the creative chaos
that surrounded the creation of Children of The Sun / Kingdom
of the Sun/ Kingdom in the Sun/The Emperor's New Groove --
it's absolutely amazing that Dindal and his team were able to
produce a film that's as polished and slickly entertaining as
the finished form of Groove appears to be.
At the very
least, Disney Studios executives are impressed by Dindal's abilities.
That's why -- in spite of Groove's somewhat lackluster
performance at the domestic box office (Only $85 million to date)
-- the Mouse has still allowed Mark to begin development work
on a new feature for WDFA.
no word yet on the plot for this proposed project. All that's
known so far is that -- for the first time in his career -- Dindal
isn't being asked to pull someone else's project out of the fire.
This time around, Mark's starting with a clean slate. Given the
great job Dindal did with rescuing damaged goods like Cats
and Groove, I can't wait to see what Mark cooks up when
he finally gets to start from scratch.
As for Groove...
Okay, so admittedly the film doesn't have the greatest reputation
right now. But neither did the original Fantasia back in
I think that time is going to be kind to Groove. This isn't
a film that had some initial success but eventually came to be
seen as horribly dated and flabby (i.e.: Disney's The Sword
in the Stone). Though audiences of today may not have known
what to make of Groove, I am certain that future movie-goers
will come to see Groove for what it really is: A superior
piece of entertainment (like WB's The Iron Giant and Turner's
Cats Don't Dance) that -- for one reason or another --
wasn't a huge commercial success during its intial release.
true animation fans should be grateful that we live in the age
of home video and DVD. So great little films like Groove, Iron
Giant and Cats don't just sit gathering dust, hidden
away on some film vault shelf. These gems are readily available,
ripe for rediscovery by film fans as well as the general public.
So, if you
didn't get around to seeing The Emperor's New Groove during
its domestic theatrical release last December, don't make the
same mistake twice. Get yourself a copy of the Groove home
video or DVD today and see for yourself what's like to laugh --
and I mean *REALLY* laugh -- while watching a cartoon again.
here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.
Jim Hill is
an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the
entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital
Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed
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advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.
of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim
is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney
World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites.
He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.
You can email
Jim Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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