Saturday, December 13, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Friday 15th December 2000

"Kingdom of the Sun" was an upcoming Disney movie that had many people very excited. Director Roger Allers (story supervisor on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and co-director of The Lion King) was set to tell an epic tale of a prince in ancient South America. It was to be an adaptation of the classic "Prince and the Pauper" story where Prince Manco - voiced by David Spade - switched places with a peasant named Pacha - to be played by Owen Wilson - while fighting the evil plots of a sorceress named Yzma - Eartha Kitt - who wanted to stop herself from aging by tying a lasso around the sun.
Kingdom of the Sun is one of Disney's most publicized disasters. The movie spent a long time in story development. "The Police" star Sting was brought in to write a number of songs for the piece, following in the footsteps of fellow Brit-Pop songwriters Elton John and Phil Collins. The voices were recorded, the storyboards finished. The film was shown to the animation big-wigs... and they hated it.

Allers and his team were essentially told to start from scratch. Almost everything was thrown out, including Sting's songs. A heartbroken Allers soon left the project, and Mark Dindal was given the director's job; the difficult task of finding something in this mess to salvage and create in an incredibly short amount of time so as to still meet the film's deadline.

Dindal and his team spent six months recreating the movie, while the animators who were supposed to be animating were put to work creating the "Rhapsody In Blue" segment of Fantasia 2000. After the six months' retooling time, Kingdom of the Sun had become a very different film. Instead of a sweeping romantic epic, it was now an outrageous comedy, owing inspiration to Looney Tunes and Ren & Stimpy more than The Lion King.

Satisfied that the film was in better shape, the producers set the animators to work at a furious pace, and the newly named "Emperor's New Groove" was rushed towards completion by December 2000, a mere half-year later than Kingdom of the Sun was originally supposed to debut.

One of Sting's conditions for joining the project was that his wife would be able to film the whole process and turn it into a documentary. When the Disney producers agreed to this, I doubt they realised the process of this movie's creation would be so messy. Trudie Styler's doco "The Sweatbox" was mostly completed, but Disney squashed it before it had a hope of being seen by the public. An early cut was leaked online, and it's not particularly difficult to find. It's a fascinating insight into the business. I was amazed at how uncooperative and difficult Sting could be, and I also loved seeing animation from the original Kingdom of the Sun movie. This is a clip of Yzma's song "Snuff Out The Light," when she was still being animated by Andreas Deja.

But that was not the movie audiences saw in December of 2000. There are still occasional glimpses and hints at the original production. One of the deleted main characters of "Kingdom" - a stone advisor to the Emperor called "Thihuaka" (my best guess at spelling his name by listening to the audio commentary) - actually makes a sneaky little cameo in the dinner scene! Keep an eye out!

 The story begins with a llama crying in the South American jungle.

We soon learn this this llama used to be the Emperor, a powerful and selfish spoiled brat; the kind of guy who would have someone thrown out the window for throwing off his "groove."

One fateful day, a farmer named Pacha is summoned to see Emperor Kuzko on an urgent matter. Meanwhile, Kuzko's advisor Yzma tries subtly to run the country behind the Emperor's back. She is followed by her dim-witted but well-meaning assistant Kronk.

Kuzko decides it's time for Yzma to go so he fires her, unwittingly creating a powerful enemy in the process. Pacha finally meets the Emperor, who tells him his house is about to be destroyed for a new water park that Kuzko is having built for his birthday.

Yzma, furious at being fired when she was gaining so much power, begins to concoct a plot to kill Kuzko and take over the Empire herself. First she plans to turn him into a flea. Then she'd put that flea inside of a box. Then she'd put that box inside of another box. Then she'd mail that box to herself. And when it arrived, she'd SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER!... But to save on postage, she decides on poison instead.

Yzma gives Kronk the task of poisoning Kuzko at dinner, but there is some confusion with the vials and instead of dying, the Emperor is turned into a llama! Yzma tells Kronk to take the llama out of town and "finish the job." Yzma doesn't realise that Kronk has a shoulder angel though, and he finds that he can't bear to see Kuzko killed.

Pacha returns home to his family. His wife Chicha is heavily pregnant, an interesting new twist on a Disney character.

As Pacha tidies up, who should he find but Emperor Kuzko, who'd accidently been dropped on to the cart in the city. Against Pacha's judgement, Kuzko decides to walk himself back to the city, but gets himself into trouble with an adorable (but vengeful) squirrel and a jamboree of jaguars.

Unable to live with his guilt, Pacha tries to rescue Kuzko. After falling over a waterfall the llama is unconscious. With a whimper of "why me," Pacha attempts C.P.R.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, a very brief funeral is held, and then Yzma begins her reign as Empress. When she discovers that Kuzko is still alive she is furious. She and Kronk head off to find the talking llama and put an end to him!

Pacha and Kuzko are making good time, when a bridge collapses underneath them and they must work together to climb back up.

Yzma and Kronk, lost in the jungle, get a tip-off from the squirrel who had met Kuzko earlier. Meanwhile, the Emperor and the farmer attempt to get some food from a diner that does not allow animals.

As Yzma and Kronk arrive at the very same restaurant, Pacha overhears them plotting. After a quick distraction he tries to warn Kuzko, but the llama dismisses his suspicions and tells him to leave. Once Kuzko realises that his loyal advisor is actually plotting to kill him, it's too late. His only friend has gone. Luckily Pacha is too nice to leave Kuzko alone in the wilderness and the two are soon reunited.

Yzma soon learns that Pacha is involved and visits his house. Fortunately Chicha and the kids are more than capable of looking after themselves.

The race is now on, to see who can get back to the palace first!

Pacha and Kuzko desperately search for the right potion to change the Emperor back into a human, but Yzma somehow beats them to it. (Even she doesn't understand how!) She finally snaps at Kronk and decides to continue the attack solo. In the commotion all of the palace guards are turned into animals. The cow is excused from battle.

In a dramatic finale hanging off the palace wall, Yzma is turned into a truly fearsome beast... a cute little kitten. Pacha finally gets hold of the human potion and changes Kuzko back to normal.

The newly-human Emperor Kuzko is a changed man. He agrees to spare Pacha's village and instead builds a summer-house on the hill next-door so that he can visit whenever he wants.
(Interestingly, it was Sting that suggested this ending. He was appalled at the original end, where Kuzko build the original model of "Kuzkotopia" on the next-door hill and everybody went watersliding; so much so that he wrote a strongly worded e-mail stating that if this ending went ahead, he would pull out of the project. The directors actually agreed with his viewpoint - that Kuzko really hadn't learned his lesson if he build Kuzkotopia anyway - and they changed the ending accordingly.)

IRVYNE: Wow. For such a troubled, disastrous production, this film actually turned out pretty darn good! What I love about The Emperor's New Groove is that it is unashamedly a comedy - moreso than any other film in the Disney canon - and it's absolutely, unashamedly a cartoon. There are plot elements that don't make any logical sense, and exaggerated expressions as crazy as an eyeball poking right out of a keyhole. But that's all fine and it's all acceptable in the language of this movie, because it's wild, wacky and hilarious.
I think it was a really inspired decision to pull the focus right down into these four main characters. It actually reminds me a bit of what they've done with the recent stage show of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They've made the entire production focus entirely on the four leads. The rest of the story is still there in the background, but if it doesn't have anything to do with the main characters, it's barely seen. Similar concept here.
Thankfully the four main characters are all wonderful and the voice acting is second-to-none. David Spade, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton and John Goodman should really be commended for giving these characters so much personality and making them so memorable.
Clean and simple. With the rushed schedule this film had to completion, you'd hardly expect it to look as rich and detailed as Tarzan, but to be honest, that style wouldn't suit this film anyway. Even the backgrounds are very simply coloured, moving all of the attention to the foreground.
Where the visuals really excel is in the character animation. Drawing inspiration from Warner Brothers cartoons and even Ren & Stimpy, the expressions these characters produce - Yzma and Kuzko in particular - are unlike anything done before in a Disney animated feature - entirely over-the-top and ultra-expressive.
You'd never call The Emperor's New Groove a masterpiece in Disney artistry, but the style is perfectly suitable for the story being told.
The final film only includes two songs, and one of them is over the end credits! "Perfect World" is good fun, apart from some very iffy rhymes (tyrants / refinements...??) and its excellent Latin rhythms set up the location as well as the story.
The song on the credits, "My Funny Friend And Me," apparently caused Sting no small amount of grief during production, as seen in "The Sweatbox" documentary. In the end he felt that perhaps the song really didn't fit the final film at all, and I tend to agree with him. It's nice that the tune managed to be included in the background score to give it a bit of a link.
The score was written by John Debney, and this would be the first of two Disney animated movies he scored, the second being Chicken Little. An interesting fact I learned while watching "The Sweatbox" is that the film was originally scored by Marc "Hairspray" "South Park" Shaiman, but the execs felt that his music just wasn't what they were looking for, so he was promptly replaced. Show business is a harsh business!
The final Debney score is great. It's big and brash, using the orchestra to audibly match the nuttiness of the plot. One of the highlights is the chase scene, where a big brass number "Run Llama Run" absolutely tears it up! Love it!
The Emperor's New Groove is brilliant fun. I have watched it many, many times now and it still makes me laugh out loud. I'd probably go so far as to call it the funniest film in the entire Disney animated canon. It's not afraid to be silly, it's got magnificent voice-acting and character animation and it's hugely enjoyable.

MALEFICENT: It is very funny.

WENDY: It's one of the only movies where I'm okay that it's self-aware.

SHENZI: There's so many classic one-liners!

MALEFICENT: I'm amazed how many lines I remembered, considering how long it's been since I saw this last.

WENDY: "Yay! I'm a llama again!... Wait."

HAKU: "Pull the lever, Kronk... WRONG LEVER!!"

PASCAL: "Groooooooove..."

IRVYNE: Surely this has to be the most quotable film in the entire Disney collection! I think my favourite character has to be Yzma. I love how manic and uninhabited Eartha Kitt was!
HAKU: I think Patrick Warburton plays the perfect buffoon. One of my favourite bits is where Kronk is doing his own theme music.

WENDY: I'd never noticed before that when the camera pulls back in that shot you realise that all of the stone carvings are pointing at him!

IRVYNE: There are so many clever little gags like that. Have you ever noticed what happens to the cactus after Yzma pours the llama potion on to it?
I LOVE Yzma as a kitten! That is just the greatest villain transformation ever, and like a lot of other things in this film, completely spits in the face of convention, where the evil villain would traditionally have become a gigantic dragon or beast that must be overcome. Nup, she's just a cute little kitty.

MALEFICENT: I laugh so hard when she lifts up her skirt and says "I bet you weren't expecting THIS!" And then it's just a dangerous-looking knife and they're so relieved.

ANNA: Yzma really needs a better bra!

IRVYNE: Yes. They hang very low. Makes me laugh. Her animators must have had so much fun!

HAKU: My favourite sight-gag in the whole film is the flower dying from the poison. It's just perfectly timed.

MALEFICENT: There are a lot of quick sight-gags. It's all so cartoony, they owe a lot to Warner Brothers.

PASCAL: I freak out just a little bit when the scorpions go down Pacha's back!

IRVYNE: You know something I just picked up on for the first time, after having seen this a thousand times before: Kuzko's line about how he was dragged all over those hills and did not hear any singing. Of course he didn't, this film doesn't have songs!... Well, except for "Perfect World" at the start and end.

HAKU: It think it's clever the way the movie is top-and-tailed by a musical number.

IRVYNE: It's really hard to rate this against other Disney movies, because it's so different, but what are we thinking here? Haku, you said at the very beginning of this blog that this is your favourite Disney. Still going with that?

HAKU: Yeah. I think it still is.

WENDY: I don't rate it that highly. It's fun to watch, but I wouldn't want to watch it over and over like with the classics.

PASCAL: I think this is the first time I've watched it all the way through, and while you guys were all quoting it, I had no idea. It wouldn't be one that I'd race to watch again.

SHENZI: I often connect things to songs. So for me, even though it's got lots of funny bits, I don't remember it as well because of its lack of songs.

IRVYNE: Well I love it. I actually find that I CAN watch it over again, because the performances are so hilarious, it never ceases to make me laugh. After the disaster that it took to get the film created, it all worked out well in the end. While I would still love to have seen what the original Kingdom of the Sun would have ended up looking like, I just love the madcap lunacy of The Emperor's New Groove. Squeakin'.