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IN SHORT: A gutbuster. [Rated G for General Audiences. 75 minutes]
There is a very fine documentary on the life of animator Chuck Jones currently running on Public Television (or click to buy VHS). You are encouraged to see it because the influence of the man in its spotlight is all over The Emperor's New Groove, the new animated movie from Disney. There are healthy dashes of Max & Dave Fleischer and nods to Disney's Pinocchio to be found as well, with a couple of musical signatures lifted from Star Wars and the Superman movies of the 1970s.
All of that would be enough for us up to dismiss The Emperor's New Groove as derivative except for two things: 1) The average viewer wouldn't notice and/or wouldn't care about the Chuck Jones influences. Long time readers know that Cranky is an avid 'toonhead -- we've got an original Jones Grinch cel hanging on the wall and had the great pleasure of having had dinner with the man back in our college days -- and we take more than the average amount of pleasure in steering folk to classics like What's Opera, Doc? whose style is very present in a lot of the early minutes of this film.
The second exception is that the Disney folk responsible for The Emperor's New Groove -- not the suits who are probably writhing at the comparisons to a Warner Brothers animation director -- have gone 180 degrees from the epic and absolutely classic 'toons in the vein of The Lion King and delivered a simple story that aims straight for the funny bone and continues the current trend of animating characters with the facial characteristics of the actors delivering the dialog. Familiarity, in this case, enforces laughter. Thus John Goodman's character looks a bit like the real John Goodman. Ditto Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld's Puddy) and lead voice David Spade. An audience that has grown familiar with these actor's characters from teevee makes an immediate connection with the characterizations onscreen, because in at least three of the four cases, you're seeing characters that aren't that far off from what you know from the little screen. Does it work? Ask the big name teevee critic sitting behind us, who complained about the very late start of the screening (as did we) to a kidlet cartoon that he didn't want to be wasting his time at. As Emperor played out, the man was cackling. As in laughing. Literally cackling.
The story revolves around Kuzko (Spade), Emperor of All He Sees, King of All That Is, Master of the Universe, a self-absorbed ass with a capital "A" whose "Perfect World begins and ends with ME!". His Royal Arrogance has had a busy day. First, he catches his chief advisor, the very elderly and scary beyond all reason Yzma (Kitt) sitting in his throne, acting as if she were the boss. That's a big no-no, which gets the crone and her twentysomething boytoy Kronk (Warburton) busted out of their palace gigs. Next up, the peasant Village leader Pacha (Goodman) learns that, the next day being the Emperor's birthday, the Village he rules will be razed to build a new summer palace. Something well placed to get a lot of sun. With a water slide off to the side. While Pacha shuffles off to figure out what to do, Kuzko settles in for a nice dinner -- Kronk may be a muscle-bound moron but at least he can cook -- at which Yzma accidentally turns him into a llama and boots him out of the palace.
It was supposed to be poison, not a magic potion, but this is a Disney movie and you won't find a zombie starring in one of those. So, a self-absorbed, arrogant talking llama it is, who narrates this story and learns how to be nice after he is befriended by Pacha. Yes, same guy.
Parent, don't groan. The Emperor's New Groove is not a message movie in almost any way shape or form -- unless you've got a two year old, in which it can be turned into a learning tool. For the rest of us, the main character's descriptive adjective changes only from a capital "A" to a small one. Perfectly in keeping with the character image David Spade has cultivated since his years on Saturday Night Live.
And that snide, sarcastic stuff, even softened for the Mouse, is the reason there's a number at the bottom of this page. The Emperor's New Groove works as a great cartoons for kidlets who glom to Roadrunner 'toons -- I've beaten that connection within an inch of its life it's a very high compliment to be paid -- and there's more than enough stuff that will sail over their heads for us grownups to make this a darn good thing to watch.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Emperor's New Groove, he would have paid...
Ah the heck with it. The adult stuff is like Jones doing Bugs. There I said it. I'll probably never get invited to a Disneyflick again . . .
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