“Kronk, pull the lever. WRONG LEVER! Why do we even have that lever?”
There was once a time when neither my sister nor I had seen The Emperor’s New Groove. The trailers gave no indication that it was particularly worth seeing, so it almost passed us by. What a tragedy that would have been! We saw it, I think, while we were both in Canada and it is now a regular item of conversational clothing. Actually, looking at the date, it did pass us by. It was only 4-5 years after its release that we watched it. Crumbs!
A bit of research on boxofficemojo for animation of 2000 reveals a relatively weak year for animation as a whole. Topping the worldwide box office was the film Dinosaur with a global take of almost $350 million, on a budget of $127 million. What now? And then next was Chicken Run, which brought in $224 million (on a much smaller budget of $45 million). This was also the year of Titan A.E. (also underrated), and The Road to El Dorado (Meh). Emperor’s New Groove, by comparison, brought in a paltry $169 million on a budget of $100 million. That’s a definite loss from a film making point of view when you consider marketing costs. Films tend to need to make at least double their production cost before they make a profit. For comparison, Toy Story (released in 1995) had a worldwide take of $373 million. Five years later, the world is richer, more people, in general, are going to the cinema and Dinosaurs doesn’t make as much money.
So what makes Emperor’s Groove so good? And what made it so difficult to market? You can see a trailer for it here. Unlike films for adults, trailers for an animation/kids film have to appeal to two audiences: the kids, and their parents. This trailer does not exactly inspire, does it? There is very little to suggest this is a film worth seeing, from either the kids’ or parents’ view. Toy Story had already signalled the start of a new age in animation: consider the trailer for 1995’s Toy Story here. So, we have several problems. Parents want to please their children (as far as I know) and so will be drawn to the newest form of media their kids enjoy. Yet, parents also don’t want to suffer unduly, or they will never let their kids forget it, like my mum reminding me of the multiple trips to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Uruguay, in Spanish. The best animations are not just good when you are a kid; they are good when you watch them again as an adult, even accounting for nostalgia. So, an animation has a difficult job at the best of times, and that job is made harder if the trailer is as by the numbers as Emperor’s New Groove’s is. If you look at the trailer for Dinosaur you can at least see the appeal of the new technology at work, which probably persuaded plenty of parents. Yet who the hell remembers this film? And everyone I have met who has seen Emperor’s New Groove has loved it.
So, again, why is it amazing, and why did it have trouble grabbing attention? Trailers are best with a film that can pick out independently cool, funny, fun moments. One need only look at the trailers for such films as Suicide Squad, which looked potentially funny and fun, to illustrate how misleading trailers can be. If you have the material anything is possible. Trailers do not do so well when those moments of entertainment are part of a gradual development, or the general blending of parts. The Emperor’s New Groove is great because it is smart. The heart of the film is in the different characters and their development. But that is not so easy to communicate in a trailer.
There are only four characters, Kuzco, Pacha, Yzma, and Kronk. Kuzco is the titular Emperor, spoiled, entitled, garnering zero sympathy from the audience, and voiced with a suitably petulant whine by David Spade. Pacha is the salt of the earth farmer and subject of Kuzco, voiced by the ever excellent John Goodman. Yzma, voiced by Eartha Kitt, is the put upon royal vizier-like character, with whom we sympathise at the beginning because, really, who would want to deal with Kuzco every day? Then there is Kronk, Yzma’s sidekick, one of a chain of strapping young men, but without much going on upstairs, with the resonant tones of Patrick Warburton.
The success of Emperor’s New Groove is that you love and care for all the characters, ultimately. There are also, of course, pure moments of comedy. Why do we even have that lever? It is a zany film, with some clear influence from The Animaniacs. Though I guess that’s just the lab scene and the feeling you’re watching the Pinky and the Brain sequence. Kuzco grows as a character, bonding with Pacha through their misadventures together. Kronk, who has always been a lovable character, just becomes more charming as you see his own struggles and how his life and his dreams are separated by an Yzma length chasm. Or wider. Yzma is pretty slight and I don’t really know how tall she is, but she seems pretty tall. Anyway, the point is that she is an obstacle to Kronk living the life he dreams of and deserves! Oh, and let’s not forget his conscience.
I should probably be more analytical, have something more insightful to say. Perhaps it is of interest that we have two stories, of Kuzco and Pacha, and Yzma and Kronk. Kuzco and Pacha begin the story as far apart as two characters can be, but by the end of the film they are neighbours and best buds. Yama and Kronk, on the other hand, are close, though never friends, while by the end of the film, Kronk has come to resent Yzma and her egotism and her mistreatment of him. She never liked his spinach puffs! Indeed, Yzma is, essentially, everything she hates about Kuzco: entitled and selfish, with the addition of a lust for power, which Kuzco, understandably, never has.
Basically, if you have never seen this film, then you should. If you have seen it and do not like it, then there’s probably something wrong with you. I just don’t know what that could be. I suppose an aversion to David Spade? That’s possible. I can’t enjoy anything with Adam Sandler. His presence would probably ruin a really good hamburger. Or a cold drink of water. Anyway, I’ll figure out this whole writing about my pop culture interests eventually. Not Adam Sandler, though.