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Back to the Drawing Board with Jim Hill:
How to Get Your "Groove" On
by Jim Hill

In honor of "The Emperor's New Groove" release to retail outlets this
week, Jim Hill offers up some insight as to why this funny little film
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.

For some, 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 ...

The Emperor's New Groove

Trouble is, 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 movie were:

"It's too silly."
"David Spade's character wasn't very likable."
"The movie moved too fast."
"The plot made no sense."

After listening 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."

The Emperor's New GrooveMyself? 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.

Oh, sure, 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.

Not Groove. 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).

The Emperor's New Groove

You want 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.

With heart-tugging 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.

The Emperor's New Groove

You see. 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.

Then there 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 the palace.

The Emperor's New Groove

It's this 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.

If you're 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.

Among the 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.

Of course, 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."

Given that 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.

Emperor's New Groove Collector's EditionThere's 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 the 1940s.

That's why 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.

That's why 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.


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 to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive an advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.

Based out 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 stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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