[Screen It]

(2000) (voices of David Spade, John Goodman) (G)

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Animated Comedy: A humble peasant tries to help an arrogant and insensitive emperor, who's been changed into a llama by his high priestess, return to his palace before she completely usurps his throne.
In a remote jungle land long ago, Kuzco (voice of DAVID SPADE) is the young, arrogant and insensitive emperor who's focused only on himself. His latest selfish endeavor is to build a summer retreat on a hill currently occupied by Pacha (voice of JOHN GOODMAN) and his peasant family. His only real problem is with Yzma (voice of EARTHA KIT), his older high priestess who enjoys filling in for him in his absence, usually without his permission.

When Kuzco catches her doing this one too many times, he decides to fire her, but this only increases her quest for his throne. As such, she has her hulky and easily distracted, right-hand man, Kronk (voice of PATRICK WARBURTON), poison the emperor, who has no heirs, so that she can become the empress.

Unfortunately, Kronk uses the wrong potion and instead of Kuzco ending up dead, he turns into a talking llama. Shocked at this turn of events, Yzma orders Kronk to kill this aberration. While attempting to do just that, however, Kronk has a change of heart and Kuzco then inadvertently ends up on Pacha's cart with that peasant unknowingly taking the llama back to his home, where his wife, Chicha (voice of WENDIE MALICK) and their two young children await him.

It doesn't take long, however, for both Pacha and Kuzco to discover what's happened, and the emperor -- in llama form and unaware of the treachery in his ranks -- orders Pacha to return him to the palace. Pacha agrees to do so, but only if Kuzco agrees to build his summer home somewhere else so as not to displace his and others' families.

Still self-centered, Kuzco refuses, but soon realizes that he'll truly need Pacha's help to make it back to the palace. From that point on, Pacha tries to do just that, all while avoiding Yzma and Kronk who are determined to finish off the emperor before he has a chance to regain his throne.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Most everyone's heard the motivational sayings, "If at first you don't succeed, try again" and "Practice makes perfect." Yet, such quests for success and perfection - while admirable in their own right - often result in lofty goals and expectations that can't be met. As a result, and notwithstanding any degree of "lesser" success, they often give those directly involved in such quests a sense of failure.

That often results in increased stress and premature burnout, and then apathy and eventual quitting. Such problems affect most every aspect of life, both personal and occupational. While films don't have any particular stranglehold on such troubles, the fact that many of them cost so much to produce, take so long to complete and often represent the future of those directly involved, if not the studio backing them, seems to increase expectations surrounding them.

Such quests for high box office returns and/or award nominations often result in films that are lacking in the sort of fun that audiences want to sense and experience. Accordingly, it's not unusual for many films to feel rather cold and calculating, as if the filmmakers and studios were so fixated about making a perfect end product that they took all of the life out of it while doing so.

Although every studio suffers from that to one degree or another, Disney seems to be particularly afflicted regarding its traditional animated efforts. That's not to say that there isn't fun to be had in their films, but the studio's track record has resulted in some elevated expectations that are difficult, if not impossible, to better.

The early years, of course, resulted in most of what are considered the studio's classic animated films, but the Big Mouse House then went through a long and dry spell where nothing really worked. Then along came "Beauty and Beast" -- the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture -- and "The Lion King," the top-grossing animated film of all time.

Ever since then, the studio has seemingly been trying to equal or top the critical and box office success of those films. Their subsequent efforts have been a mixed bag from a critical and financial perspective, but those lofty goals have yet to be met. Perhaps the problem has been that they're simply trying too hard to knock another one out of the ballpark, when they should instead just step up to the plate, take a casual swing, and see what results that might bring, all while having a good time doing so.

That certainly seems to be what they've done with "The Emperor's New Groove," one of the studio's most enjoyable animated efforts in years. Reportedly once a straight dramatic flick, someone in the chain of command evidently was bright enough to give the film a complete comedic overhaul, and the results are nothing short of fabulously entertaining.

Gone are the heavy-handed "message" moments and/or symbolism, as well as the obvious efforts of trying to better their previous films' animation style and effects. In their place is a seemingly carefree throwback to the screwball comedies of old. The story, crafted by screenwriter David Reynolds (who's worked in various fashions on various past Disney projects), isn't anything particularly notable or special, as it's yet just another take on the mismatched road movie pair. The way in which it's been fashioned and then helmed by director Mark Dindal ("Cats Don't Dance"), however, evokes the fun and spirit of the Marx Brothers, the comedic works of Howard Hawks and many others.

Of course, one's potential enjoyment of the film rests entirely with their appreciation - or not - of the typical work of David Spade ("Lost & Found," TV's "Just Shoot Me"). While one obviously doesn't see the comedian, his snide vocal delivery and attitude are ever present. I'll be honest and admit that I've never been particularly fond of him in leading roles - although I've often liked his supporting work - but his presence and the typical sort of character he always plays actually works quite well here.

It's no surprise that his arrogant and insensitive character will get in his share of snide remarks both before and during his receiving of his comeuppance, or that he'll eventually change his ways and be a nice guy (it is, after all, a G-rated Disney cartoon). Yet, the way in which all of that transpires - as filtered through a heavy dose of screwball comedy material - results in a lively, enjoyable and often quite funny experience.

A "near miss" sequence - where two evil characters nearly catch sight of the emperor while his new partner tries to prevent that from happening - is easily one of the film's highlights. It includes various close calls involving a revolving kitchen door and the creative use of some restaurant menus, just like they used to do in such movies of old.

Although the entire film is a comedy - and includes some quite funny bits with Spade's character also serving as the film's narrator (somewhat along the lines of "George of the Jungle") - its best humor comes from the "comic relief" sidekicks and supporting characters.

While Eartha Kitt ("Boomerang" Catwoman on the old "Batman" TV show) voices the villainess (which results in some amusing moments when she's turned into a kitten), it's Patrick Warburton ("Scream 3," Puddy on TV's "Seinfeld") as her somewhat dimwitted and easily distracted right-hand man who steals the show. Given the film's best material and humorous lines, Warburton - like the rest of the performers -- is perfectly cast for the character, with which he runs with reckless abandon.

John Goodman ("Coyote Ugly," "What Planet Are You From?") pretty much plays the sensitive straight man, while several brief bits featuring an upset squirrel are very funny and rather reminiscent of material from the old Looney Tunes cartoons.

In fact, most of the film seems that way. Although much of it was assuredly quite calculated and contemporary jokes and humor reside in the period setting (much like occurred in "Aladdin"), it comes off feeling light and fresh, as if everyone involved in the making of it had as much fun doing so as both kids and adults alike will have in watching it. Not Disney's best animated effort, but certainly highly enjoyable and entertaining nonetheless, "The Emperor's New Groove" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 2000 / Posted December 15, 2000

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