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 titled Kingdom of the Sun and was a variation on The Prince and the Pauper, with a spoiled Inca 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. Probably the moment the execs heard the word "llama," visions of December merchandising danced in their heads.
Disney's big animated releases are traditionally based on pre-existing material -- myths and fairy tales or historical episodes, radically refitted to wear the mouse ears. There have been exceptions, the most successful of which, The Lion King, was a tissue of archetypal narrative motifs based on no one story. The Emperor's New Groove, though it didn't start out that way, is another. Its only big classical debt might be to Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass, in which a man is transformed into a donkey. It's a different quadruped in New Groove, but the same basic idea.
If the film lacks a specific literary source, however, 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. Jones was the creator and/or perfecter of the Looney Tunes repertory company, a man who made the best adventures of Bugs Bunny and Porky and Daffy, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote and Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian, not to mention the great TV incarnations of the Grinch and Max and Cindy Lou Who. Image after image in The Emperor's New Groove recalls Jones's eye for angular, expressionistic design, and again and again the characters' faces reflect the subtlety of expression he pioneered. Most important, the sight gags employ the speed and precision timing that Jones brought to cartoon comedy.
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 he could do 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 and complex comic persona -- the self-aware, condescending loser, the alpha male/pipsqueak/wiseass who's a legend in his own mind, but whose own mind is too sharp not to see that it is only there that he's legendary.
Spade's character in New Groove is a golden ass named Kuzco, a teen-emperor of a jungle civilization. The "groove" of the title 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 advisor 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, however, 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 that of considering 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. Try as they might, the Disney folks just can't resist turning on the schmaltz machine. Wile E. Coyote never had a change of heart. Spade's wormy little incubus-nerd Finch doesn't have changes of heart. And neither one is any less lovable for it.
Granting all of this, it still would 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.
Better still, New Groove had the good sense not to be a musical. It originally had a song score by Sting, but at some point in the course of production his tunes were discarded. Now, he can be heard only under the end titles, performing something haunting, and there's an introductory number early on sung by Tom Jones.
Best of all, maybe, the movie manages not to effect an ersatz piety toward the culture in which it's nominally set. There's not an Andean pipe to be heard, and only a few bars of "The Girl from Ipanema."