I like to imagine that there’s a great and glorious Disney pantheon somewhere in the ether, filled with dignified and whimsical characters from all of Disney’s franchises hanging out and eating ambrosia, Olympus style. They’re pretty chummy with one another, but they never act below their station. The princesses always act like princesses, the heroes always act like heroes, the villains always act like villains, the cute animal mascots always act like cute animal mascots. No one ever acts in a way that’s undignified or asymmetrical to their assigned narrative roles.
On the mountaintop next to Disney-Olympus is Kuzcotopia. That’s where everyone from The Emperor’s New Groove lives, because they embarrass all the other Disney characters with their insistence that you should have fun while you’re telling a story, regardless of whether it makes sense to the narrative.
Also, there’s a water slide, which is wicked sweet.
In watching this movie, I’m reminded of the marketing campaign that actually revolved around the later Lilo & Stitch which emphasized that Stitch was not a typical Disney character, and he would actually alienate all the other characters if they happened to inhabit the same universe. That’s true to an extent, but Lilo & Stitch, for all its zaniness, is a movie that still revolves around the heartwarming caramel center that all Disney films are built on. Emperor says, “Screw that! I’m going to have fun, and maybe I’ll teach the kids a lesson about friendship when I’m not too busy being awesome.”
Even though this movie comes really late in Disney’s animated canon, I think it’s best to compare it to the classic Looney Tunes shorts of the 1940s and ’50s. Yes, there’s a definite narrative arc going on, but it’s always subservient to the comedy, and extended interludes like the entire diner sequence do almost nothing to move the action forward, but are some of the best parts of the film.
One particularly praiseworthy aspect of Emperor’s New Groove has to do with its portrayal of people of color. This is a story set in a pseudo-Incan civilization where not a white person is in sight. It’s a fantastic case of Disney (unlike when they did Pocahontas) not allowing themselves to exoticize non-European people, and thus undercutting really human portrayals of their characters.
On the flip side, one glaring flaw with this film is how it handles Kuzco’s treatment of Yzma. Yzma is definitely the villain of the story, but she’s a pretty mild villain once you get past all the murdery plots. Yzma wants to rule the empire, and she happens to be an older woman. We don’t see any evidence that she’s a particularly bad ruler after she assumes control (for all we know, she’s actually an improvement over the self-absorbed Kuzco). Given all of this, one of the biggest sources of humor about Yzma is the fact that she’s old. A case might be made that it’s just Kuzco making these jokes, and he’s pretty much a jerk throughout most of the movie, but there are clearly instances where Yzma’s age is highlighted by the film in order to drive home a punchline, like when we get a close-up shot of the wrinkles around her eyes at the dinner party, or when Kronk stumbles into her bedroom and freaks out over seeing her in a facial mask. It’s one of the few problems with the movie’s humor, but it should be highlighted, if only because Yzma’s such a great character otherwise.
The final opinion is this: The Emperor’s New Groove is a really weird Disney movie, mostly because it doesn’t feel like much of a Disney movie, and that’s what makes it so great. Also, Yzma’s final fate, which in a more serious movie would involve falling to her doom from atop Kuzco’s palace, instead involves her getting turned into an adorable kitten and made to learn good socialization skills through the Cub Scouts.