Disney’s new ultra-hip cartoon “The Emperor’s New Groove” is clearly the product of a world-weary, post-Nickelodeon era. It’s not enough anymore to make the kids laugh while slipping in some satire for the grown-ups; kids are so savvy nowadays, you have to give THEM something to bite on, too.
Set roughly in the age of the Incas, the film centers on Emperor Kuzco (David Spade), who in turn centers on himself. He’s a brash young ruler who cares only for himself. He’s not cruel or despotic — he just doesn’t think about anyone else.
He gets mad at his adviser, an emaciated Cruella De Vil type named Yzma (Eartha Kitt), and fires her. For revenge, she plots to poison him with the help of her beefy, dim-witted assistant, Kronk (Patrick Warburton). Kronk screws it up, though, and instead of being killed, Kuzco is turned into a llama.
He accidentally winds up with a llama herder named Pacha (John Goodman), whose village Kuzco was planning to destroy to make room for his new swimming pool. Against what might have been his better judgment, Pacha agrees to help Kuzco make it back to the palace, even though Kuzco refuses to change his mind about the whole leveling-the-town thing.
And so we have a breezy little buddy picture in which the unlikely pair has to work as a team, and in which Kuzco has to learn to love someone other than himself.
Where Disney’s other animated films of the last decade have generally had that “classic” feel about them, this one seems a bit more tossed-off, like it will be all but forgotten 10 years from now. Even movies that were more about humor than message — “Aladdin” and “Hercules,” for example — still had an “I’m gonna make it someday” musical number and a soft heart. “The Emperor’s New Groove” has neither. The message is no more or less deep than, say, “Beauty and the Beast’s”; it’s the manner in which it’s presented that makes it different. Kuzco’s personal journey seems like a necessary evil, something that’s there because fables are supposed to have morals, and the movie keeps it at arm’s length. Emotionally speaking, “Emperor” is a typical male: more interested in cracking jokes and being snide than in expressing its feelings.
With its lightning pace, 78-minute length and no sense of timelessness about it, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a thrown-together attempt to make a few dollars. I don’t think that would be fair, though, as it is very well-animated, tightly plotted, well-acted and extremely funny. If it’s a quickie, it’s a pretty good one.
David Spade is, well, David Spade as Kuzco. If his smarmy, superior manner bothers you normally, don’t expect it to be any different here. John Goodman is likable as always, but it’s Patrick Warburton — David Puddy on “Seinfeld” — who makes the picture soar. His Kronk character is more than just a well-meaning moron. He’s actually kind of smart, and good-natured enough in his subservience to Yzma that you root for him all the way. His delivery is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers or Bugs Bunny, loopy and energetic, even while maintaining his tough-sounding deadpan.
Will you be rewatching this again and again a decade from now? Unlikely. But will you laugh quite a bit now? Probably so.
B+ (; )