It takes nothing away from The Emperor's New Groove, Disney's delightful new animated feature, to say that watching the producers pitch the film to a bunch of stony faced executives might have been even more entertaining than watching the film. Reportedly, the story was originally a variation on The Prince and the Pauper, with a spoiled Incan prince changing places with his commoner double. But with the film well into production, Disney higher-ups ordered a massive reworking, on the threat of the project being scrapped. In desperation, the producers concocted the shape-shifting angle, and that was enough to seal the deal.
If the film lacks a specific literary source -- a rarity among Disney ventures -- it has an unmistakable visual source: Disney has finally made an entire film in the style of Chuck Jones, the Da Vinci of Warner Bros. animation. Image after image in The Emperor's New Groove suggests Jones's eye for angular, expressionistic design, and again and again the characters' faces reflect the subtlety of expression he pioneered.
On a verbal level, the movie also has a too-hip-for-Disney sensibility going for it in David Spade, who provides the title character's voice. Spade seemed like a two-trick pony in his Saturday Night Live days: He could do venomous snideness and breathy-voiced toadying. But in the last few years, as Dennis Finch on TV's Just Shoot Me, he's combined these two modes and developed a truly original comic persona.
Spade's character in New Groove is a golden ass named Kuzco, a teen emperor of a jungle civilization. The "groove" refers to the effortless panache with which Kuzco moves through his environment. Those who inadvertently throw off this groove meet with terrible fates, until Kuzco casually fires his scheming adviser, Yzma, purred by Eartha Kitt. Yzma is also a sorceress, and she responds to her downsizing by deciding to usurp the throne by poison. Instead, she accidentally slips Kuzco a potion that llama-nates him. In this form, the Emperor escapes, attaching himself to the good-hearted peasant Pacha (John Goodman), whose hilltop village he had been planning to raze to build himself a resort palace. Thus, as Pacha is reluctant to help him return to imperial status, the "new groove" Kuzco must learn is to consider the feelings of others. Groan. If The Emperor's New Groove takes a wrong turn, it's in the scenes that depict this bonding and Kuzco's subsequent change of heart. Disney folks just can't resist turning on the schmaltz machine -- even when, as here, they're just goofing around. Wile E. Coyote never had a change of heart. David Spade's wormy little incubus-nerd Dennis Finch doesn't have changes of heart. And neither is any less lovable for it.
Granting all of this, it would still be hopelessly ungrateful not to acknowledge what a refreshment The Emperor's New Groove is. Considering its jerry-rigged history, it shouldn't work, but it does. Much of it -- most of it -- ranges from very funny to hilarious, and director Mark Dindal maintains a fine, headlong pace; the film whips past so snappily, it almost feels like one of the Chuck Jones shorts it takes its inspiration from.