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Torn apart in production, The Emperor’s New Groove came out at exactly the wrong time

Abandoned by its creator and revised by Sting, this beloved animation failure went through hell but came out hilarious

Graphic grid of still images from the Disney film “The Emperor’s New Groove” Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Disney

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or, more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these films.

After reaching the epic highs of its own renaissance, Disney was trying to find its footing. Trying to replicate the box-office glory and critical success of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King was resulting in diminishing returns. Big, sweeping, serious musicals like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame weren’t doing as well as the studio hoped. What was a studio to do? How about breathing life into a long-gestating project, hoping a new tactic would yield successful results?

Enter 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove. Retooled from a project that spent years in production hell, the animated comedy was once a grandiose musical before it got a slapstick makeover. Though it received positive reviews, The Emperor’s New Groove opened to poor box-office results compared to past Disney glory. But it’s clear two decades later that the complete tonal shift from Disney movies past earned it a passionate fan base.

kuzco finger gunning and pointing at something Image: Walt Disney Animation

What it’s about

In Peru’s Inca Empire, selfish, cocky Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) gets turned into a llama by his scheming advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt). Dumped into the countryside by Yzma’s henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton), Kuzco must team up with down-to-earth peasant Pacha (John Goodman) in order to get back home and transform back into a human.

A little backstory ...

Originally a musical comedy-romance, more in line with the typical Disney Renaissance movie, the first version of The Emperor’s New Groove started development in 1994, under the title Kingdom of the Sun. It was to be a Prince and the Pauper-style plot, deeply rooted in the spiritual and cultural elements of the Inca Peru. Off the success of The Lion King, director Roger Allers was given a great deal of control over story and casting decisions. Inspired by the success of Elton John on The Lion King, he tapped Sting to create the music for Kingdom of the Sun. Allers had a vision, and in his own words, it was an “epic picture mixing elements of adventure, comedy, romance, and mysticism.”

But after the not-so-great box-office performances of the similarly serious projects Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, executives at Disney were concerned about Kingdom of the Sun’s future. Producer Randy Fullmer tapped Mark Dindal, a former Disney animator who’d gone to Warner Bros to direct Cats Don’t Dance, to co-direct Kingdom and bring in some levity.

The production of The Emperor’s New Groove was rocky from the get-go, rife with conflict between executives and within the creative team itself. In fact, production was so terrible that filmmaker Trudie Styler, who is married to Sting, made a documentary about the ordeal in 2002. (One of Sting’s conditions for signing onto the movie was that Styler be allowed to document the process.) The Sweatbox details the conflicts between the film’s executives and the creative team. Disney legally owns the rights and has not made it available for purchase or download anywhere, but online bootlegs periodically surface.

The crux of The Emperor’s New Groove’s production woes stem from the fact that Dindal and Allers were essentially making two separate movies, and Dindal’s version — the slapstick comedy — won out. In early test screenings, audiences responded to the humorous scenes, and didn’t take to the more serious ones. In the summer of 1998, Disney executives gave Fullmer an ultimatum about the floundering project. Allers insisted that given more time, he could get it back on track, but Fullmer refused. Allers left the production.

The Kingdom of the Sun was such a heart-breaking experience for me,” he told Fumettologica in 2014. “I put four years of my heart and energy into that one. They kept just enough of my elements (characters and such) that I can never produce my original vision or story elsewhere.”

The project went dormant for a bit, before Michael Eisner told Fullmer to get it in gear within two weeks, or else it’d be totally shelved. Fullmer and Dindal took that two weeks to revamp the entire story, stripping it of characters and most of the grander plot. Eisner gave the go-ahead on their revisions, and production commenced.

Owen Wilson, Carla Gugino, and Harvey Fierstein — who were set to play leading roles in the original movie — were dropped from the cast. Most of the Sting songs were nixed from the final film, though a few appear on the movie’s album. The overall tone became a buddy road comedy, with a bit of Looney Toons inspiration. Sting, who spent a lot of his activism career advocating for the rights of indigenous people, objected so strenuously to the original ending, where Kuzco destroys a rainforest to build his amusement park, that the team changed it. The original release date was swapped with the CG flick Dinosaur to buy them more time to complete the film. Finally, on Dec. 15, 2000, the retitled, re-envisioned, retooled The Emperor’s New Groove debuted.

Why it didn’t work

yzma and kronk in lab coats, high-fiving each other Image: Walt Disney Animation

The Emperor’s New Groove didn’t completely tank, but it did considerably less business than Disney expected, earning $169.3 million worldwide. Even Pocahontas, Hercules, and Hunchback, which Disney considered underperformers, still made more than $250 million at the international box office, almost three times their production budgets. The last time Disney had such low box-office returns for a film (not counting Fantasia 2000, which came out earlier that year) was in the 1980s, when the company wasn’t doing well financially.

The reviews for The Emperor’s New Groove were solid, but its main obstacle came from Disney itself: It was right up against the live-action movie 102 Dalmatians, which came out three weeks earlier, on Thanksgiving weekend. Disney put more marketing money into 102 Dalmatians, which, as a sequel to an already successful property chock full of cute dogs, had a clearer and easier path to success than the tonally different buddy comedy that was rushed through a troubled production. The Emperor’s New Groove was also up against Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Both live-action flicks were safer, more traditional family-friendly fare than a wacky buddy road comedy set in pre-colonial South America. The studio also believed that dubbing the movie in Spanish and playing it in select theaters in Los Angeles would appeal to the Latinx market. The box-office response suggests it did not.

And in a case of the parallel production and release that so often happens with movies, The Emperor’s New Groove was not the first animated buddy road comedy set in pre-colonial South America to come out in 2000. The title belongs to DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado — which was a critical flop as well as a financial one. Whether DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg swiped the idea from Disney (Kingdom of the Sun was in development when he was still at Disney) can’t be proved, but it’s clear that while the creators may have been hitting the same vibe with their settings and tones, the audiences at the time weren’t quite looking for an animated buddy comedy.

Why we love it today

pacha and kuzco swinging from a vine Image: Walt Disney Animation

In many ways, The Emperor’s New Groove benefitted from internet culture in the same way The Road to El Dorado did. People who grew up with the movie latched onto the comedic aspects. The early 2000s marked a shift in animation from the Broadway-style Disney epics, like Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia, into the heavily comedic tone of movies like Shrek and Ice Age, which defined the landscape for the next decade or so. The Emperor’s New Groove — much like El Dorado — arrived just ahead of that total shift.

It isn’t that the Disney Renaissance films lacked comedy. Aladdin and Hercules both had their slapstick elements. But they were also both rooted in typical heroic characters, with typical heroic stakes. But there is no such arc in The Emperor’s New Groove. Kuzco is a cocky little shit. Yzma is comically grandiose. Kronk is the archetypical himbo — strong, kind, and stupid — before himbos were at the center of fussy internet debates. Emperor’s only typically heroic character is stalwart peasant Pacha, but he exists to get swept up in ridiculous schemes.

So much of The Emperor’s New Groove lives on in memes and screencaps, because it’s a really funny movie. New memes continue to be made from The Emperor’s New Groove, whether it’s Kronk muttering “It’s all coming together” or Pacha making a “just right” gesture. It’s hard to talk about the vibrant meme culture that evolved from The Emperor’s New Groove without talking about The Road to El Dorado — both movies live on because they’re damn funny in and out of context, and they garnered a passionate fanbase poised to appreciate their humor after the initial theatrical runs.

But examining both movies reveals their separate strengths. El Dorado thrives on the electric chemistry between its lead characters and their back-and-forth banter. The Emperor’s New Groove excels in physical comedy and timing, evoking classic Looney Toons and Donald Duck cartoons more than movies of the Disney Renaissance.

One scene that highlights the perfect comedic timing comes about midway through the movie, when Pacha and Kuzco stop in a restaurant, while disguised as a honeymooning couple. As Kuzco steps out to talk to the chef, Yzma and Kronk make a pit stop in the restaurant as well. The pairs keep accidentally missing each other: they place orders right after each other, walk through revolving doors in succession, narrowly avoid disastrous eye contact because one or the other of them is looking at a menu. It’s all perfectly timed, and it builds up to a hilarious escape, where Pacha gets the waiters of the anachronistic fast-food restaurant to serenade Yzma with a birthday song, so he and Kuzco can yeet out of there.

Dindal knew what he was doing when it came time to fix Kingdom of the Sun. And perhaps those changes were made for the better. Audiences were tiring of the epic Disney Broadway-style musical, judging by the lukewarm reception not just to Pocahontas and Hunchback, but to Warner Bros.’ attempt, Quest for Camelot. The Emperor’s New Groove throws away the formula, packing each moment with fun physical gags, quirky anachronistic touches, dynamic character designs, and superb voice acting on the part of the core cast.

David Spade and Patrick Warburton in particular shine as Kuzco and Kronk, even though they’re essentially playing, well, every live-action character they’ve ever played. It’s not all perfect — for one, the voice cast of this South American-set tale mostly consists of white actors — but The Emperor’s New Groove is a zany combination of cartoony parts that mesh together well. The experience doesn’t replicate the Disney Renaissance’s box-office gold entries, but it was ready and waiting for audiences to rediscover later on, once they knew what they were looking for.

The Emperor’s New Groove is available to stream on Disney Plus.

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