You may be familiar with the Disney Renaissance from 1989 to 1999. The Walt Disney Animation Studios experienced their biggest boom in history thanks to 'The Little Mermaid'. This period really certified what Disney was as a brand - and not just with the films they produced; the 90s is when Disney really started becoming a monopoly. But there was something the studio was kind of blind-sighted by... computer animation. While Disney has been distributing Pixar films since 'Toy Story' since 1995, but the way it eclipsed hand-draw film almost to the point of extinction off the heels of this Disney Renaissance caught the studio off-guard. By the time the 2000s rolled around, everything was up in the air for Disney as more and more focus was put on Pixar as the hand-drawn department slowly crumbled.
The Post Renaissance era of Disney is the most interesting to me. Between 2000 and 2009, Disney made some of their strangest titles, films that are so un-Disney: 'Chicken Little', 'Treasure Planet', 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire', 'Home on the Range', and the film that kicked off this era, 'The Emperor's New Groove'. It's the only film from this era - besides 'Lilo and Stitch' - that became a franchise from this time period.
'The Emperor's New Groove' is a buddy comedy about an ill-tempered emperor who turns into a Llama and needs the help of a father whose house is being knocked down because of him. How does this movie work? Who would have thought this would become a staple in the Disney line-up. Kuzco, Pacha, Yzma and Kronk became some of the most beloved Disney characters of the 21st century.
'The Emperor's New Groove' originally started as 'Kingdom of the Sun', a much more traditionally Disney story, looking much more like DreamWorks' 'The Road to El Dorado' and portraying much more of the Inca lifestyle and beliefs. It began production in 1994 with 'The Lion King' director Roger Allers planning to direct. The story was a 'Prince and the Pauper' story with a greedy emperor (voiced by David Spade) and a peasant (voiced by Owen Wilson) switching places. However, villain Yzma summons the evil God of Death to destroy the sun so she can remain young and beautiful forever. Discovering the switch the emperor has done, she turns him into a llama while threatening to reveal the peasant's identity if he doesn't obey. Meanwhile, the peasant falls in love with the emperor's soon-to-be wife and the emperor falls for llama-herder, Mata, while also learning about humility. It was pitched as a "romantic comedy musical in the 'traditional' Disney Style", and a surprising number of elements from this original version are still in the film we got. But after both 'Pocahontas' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' both underperforming at the box office, Disney felt the project was too ambitious and serious after a series of test screenings.
Due to Elton John's success with 'The Lion King' soundtrack, Allers personally called Sting to pen songs for 'Kingdom of the Sun'. This came with the condition that his wife could document the process, which she did in a documentary entitled 'The Sweatbox' - which, if you can track it down, is an extremely interesting and stripped-back look at 'The Emperor's New Groove's' strange production history, which is why Disney bought the rights and never officially released it outside a few festival screenings. You can see an extremely edited-down version of the documentary on the DVD special features for 'New Groove', but it's more of a behind-the-scenes of the one song Sting got to keep in the credits, 'My Funny Friend and Me'.
By 1998, the film was nowhere near close to being ready for its 2000 summer release. Allers left the project, and producer Randy Fullmer was given two weeks to turn the film around or production would cease. In these two weeks, Pacha was aged up from a teenager to a father, and the film shifted to the buddy road picture. Kronk was also created in this overhaul, and the emperor's name was changed from Manco to Kuzco, due to Manco being Japanese slang for female genitalia; we love that Disney magic. All romantic subplots where dropped, as well as the 'Prince and the Pauper' storyline. With production constantly being delayed and Sting facing scheduling conflicts with his own music, he was fed up with the production and feeling used and angry. Disney included three of his six original songs on the soundtrack for 'New Groove', and if you haven't heard Yzma's villain song 'Snuff Out the Light', hurry up and change that. There is also footage on YouTube of Eartha Kitt recording it, and it's jaw-dropping. I wish they kept the number in the final film. Disney's first computer-animated film 'Dinosaur' was moved up to 'Kingdom of the Sun's' original release date, and in February 2000 the new title 'The Emperor's New Groove' was revealed to the world, along with its December 2000 release date.
Considering all of this production hell, it's a surprise to anyone that 'The Emperor's New Groove' is as good as it is - and holds up the way it does. It's such a strong movie that many people don't know its production story; rather, it feels like it's the film they set out to make.
The ending that Sting was shown had the film ending with Kuzco's Kuzcotopia being built on a different hill to Pacha's, destroying a rainforest... yikes. Sting wrote a passive-aggressive letter to the studio, "You do this, I'm resigning because this is exactly the opposite of what I stand for. I've spent 20 years trying to defend the rights of indigenous people and you're just marching over them to build a theme park. I will not be party to this". This made Disney change the ending to what we see in the film today.
Considering all of this production hell, it's a surprise to anyone that 'The Emperor's New Groove' is as good as it is - and holds up the way it does. It's such a strong movie that many people don't know its production story; rather, it feels like it's the film they set out to make. Along with 'Lilo and Stitch', 'The Emperor's New Groove' was the last hand-drawn success story for Disney, as the rise of Pixar and DreamWorks in the early 2000s killed the hand-drawn department at Disney. While sad, it was exciting to see Disney, a studio so tied to brand-name recognition in hand-drawn animation's last days, was still trying different approaches to storytelling.
As Kronk says in the film, 'by all accounts it makes no sense'. 'The Emperor's New Groove' doesn't exactly fit in the Disney canon and it probably shouldn't have worked - but it did, and that's why we keep going back to it 20 years later.
Pull the lever, grab some spinach puffs, practice your squirrel and relive this groovy film.
Also, if you weren't a child of the early 2000s and didn't watch the spin-off show 'The Emperor's New School', get on to it - however, do not watch the sequel 'Kronk's New Groove'.