There exists, in the world of Disney fans, a curious group of people who would count The Emperor’s New Groove as their favourite film from the House of Mouse. They couldn’t care less about the Golden Age and they probably prefer Aladdin to The Lion King and Dreamworks to Pixar. I know a couple and I am even related to one. They are not to be trusted. Maybe it’s the only Disney film they’ve seen, it’s difficult to say. But they are out there, and they are not ashamed.
Let’s be clear: I really, really like The Emperor’s New Groove, but for me it only fulfils one of the categories that make up the best Disney films. The animation is strong but uninspired, there isn’t a whole lot of heart and nothing feels particularly wondrous. Yet these Groovesters, as I shall call them, are drawn to one particular aspect of the film – it’s entirely hilarious from start to finish, meaning that it is definitely the funniest film in the Disney canon. In fact, it could be their only straight-up comedy, relentless with its jokes with the sole aim of making the audience laugh. And in that it succeeds magnificently.
Arguably, The Emperor’s New Groove feels more like a classic Warner Bros cartoon than a Disney joint, braving the dangerous territory of meta-humour and mixing it with some perfectly pitched slapstick. The scene where Kronk and Yzma are chasing the two heroes and they see their path marked out by dots on a map, before they plummet comically down a ravine, is pure Wile E Coyote. It shares a similar joy of putting it’s characters through over the top pain that so characterised the Looney Tunes, setting the film in a world of trap doors and wrong levers, squirrels who wake panthers up by popping balloons and overly elaborate traps for baddies to fall into. It does all this with a gleeful, mischievous joy that it’s impossible not to laugh along with it.
Underlying all of this slapstick, however, is a genuinely intelligent vein of meta humour, complete with a knowingly unreliable narrator who argues with his characters, people writing their own theme tunes and one exquisite conversation between Kronk and the angel and demon on his shoulders. It’s a significant step up from attempts at this smart, knowing humour in Hercules, which missed the mark by some distance. Groove, by being very single minded in its pursuit of hilarity, hits the bullseye. Maybe the reason it is beloved can be down entirely to the character Kronk, a wonderfully dimwitted sidekick to Yzma, a villain funnier than she is scary. Kronk gets some of the best moments in the film, from talking to a squirrel in squeaks to becoming an impromptu chef in a sequence of repeated ‘near misses.’ If he was only the comic relief in a serious film, Groove would still be funnier than most other Disney films.
The main issue that stops it from being truly great, however, is that there’s nothing beyond the jokes. The South American setting is rendered in stylised animation that is more there to serve the comedy than to impress. The friendship between Pacha (voiced by John Goodman whose distinctive bass tones have graced a silly amount of animated films) and Cuzco is nicely played but unremarkable – you’ve seen storylines like it before, even if the storytellers’ commitment to the Emperor’s nastiness is admirable. Aside from the villain, the female characters are either underserved or simply non-existent. This means that, refreshingly, there is no tacked on romance, but it also means that it’s a bit of a boys-own story. None of these are problems in and of themselves, but accumulated it means that it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the studio’s best stuff.
There isn’t much more to Groove than its relentless comedy, but when a film is this funny, that isn’t necessarily an issue. It’s the intelligence and success of the humour that probably gives the film its place as a cult favourite among Disney fans, even if it won’t be challenging for a place in my top 10 at the end of the year. However, if anyone ever says that this is their favourite Disney film, throw a copy of The Lion King at them.