I'm skipping ahead. The actual entry at No. 39 in the Disney animation canon is the 2000 summer film Dinosaur, an ambitious and hugely expensive computer-generated imagery cartoon with live-action backgrounds that represents the studio's first step into so-called 3-D animation that looked so awful to me back in the day that I still have never actually seen it. Anyway, since the proximate reason I embarked on this massive Disney retrospective was their return to hand-drawn animated features after a five-year gap with The Princess and the Frog, I felt justified in skipping the four CG features that were, after all, made by an entirely different creative team. I may perhaps revisit them at some point.
For right now, though, we're moving ahead to December, 2000, for the first Disney animated feature since Aladdin, eight years earlier, with a fourth-quarter release date. Titled The Emperor's New Groove, it is a fairly silly, zany comedy with arguably the most minimalist style of any Disney feature since some of the package film shorts way back in the 1940s, for partially similar reasons: it had to be put together fairly quickly. It has the personal significance of being the first traditionally animated Disney feature that I did not see in a theatre; not because I thought it looked particularly bad but because that winter was during freshman year of college, and I was sufficiently stressed-out and busy that it just seemed easier to wait and catch up with it later, especially since it didn't seem all that exciting or visually spectacular. What I missed out on for a year or better was a deliciously funny comedy better than any of Disney's other efforts in that vein, a film more indebted to the mentality of Chuck Jones than Walt Disney but all the better for being the studio's all-time most successful effort to do something different with their aesthetic, to reach beyond the simple limits of what we tend to call "Disney cinema".
Bizarrely, this lightest and wackiest of all Disney features was born from the most strenuous, vituperative pre-production experience of any of their films since The Black Cauldron in 1985 - and what better proof need we that the Disney Renaissance had crashed to its end than a return to miserable development hell, after so many films of relatively smooth, elegant production histories? The Emperor's New Groove had its roots in a project called Kingdom of the Sun, which was being developed by producer Randy Fullmer (an effects animator by trade) and director Roger Allers as early as 1994, as the follow-up to the smash hit The Lion King, which Allers had co-directed. Kingdom of the Sun was going to follow closely in that film's footsteps: an epic comedy-drama with a splashy musical soundtrack composed by a major pop icon, Sting in this case, and a narrative loosely re-worked from a familiar literary source: Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. Set in the Incan empire, it told of a spoiled youthful ruler, Manco (voiced by David Spade,) who swapped places with a llama herder, Pacha (Owen Wilson), only to have the vengeful court witch Yzma (Eartha Kitt) turn the prince into a llama, and blackmail the llama herder into doing her bidding or she will reveal the whole plot and blame him for doing away with the emperor. Yzma's scheme involves darkening the earth, as she blames the sun for giving her wrinkles, and she wishes to regain her old beauty.
By late 1997 it had gotten fairly far along in the animation process, with millions of dollars spent along the way, when the Disney executives started to worry: Kingdom of the Sun didn't seem to be working, and Allers didn't seem to care. The plot was awfully familiar and unengaging, the actors didn't seem terribly well-suited to singing Sting's songs, and all in all it just seemed like a boring mess. Allers was at this point one of the all-time golden boys at Disney - he'd turned a middling Hamlet knock-off around, fixing that film's rather dull story, and made it the highest-grossing cartoon of all time, after all - and the executives made the nearly fatal mistake of staying away from the project for too long, assuming that he'd bring some of that Lion King spark to the new project; but it just wasn't happening, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Kingdom of the Sun wasn't going to be ready for the summer 2000 release date that Disney had been planning on. And even if it was, the executives had little faith that it was going to be a crowd-pleaser, especially since The Hunchback of Notre Dame had just followed Pocahontas as the second "serious" Disney film in a row to significantly under-perform at the box office. Something had to be fixed, immediately.
The first step was to assign Allers a co-director, in the form of Mark Dindal. Dindal had been with Disney as an effects animator for years, and had worked closely with both Allers and Fullmer on other projects; but that wasn't his chief qualification. Oddly enough, it was some work he'd just completed with Warner Bros. that put him at the top of the pile: he'd just finished directing 1997's Cats Don't Dance, a colossal box-office flop that was blamed more on mismanagement by a studio that didn't know how to deal with an animated throwback to 1940s movies (they had a similar problem only two years later) than on Dindal; in fact, Disney thought that Dindal's work was so exciting and buoyant that he seemed to be exactly the man to help Allers bring a rare of audience-friendly entertainment to the desperately serious Kingdom of the Sun.
This fix didn't take, largely because Dindal and Allers seemed to be working on two completely different projects: Allers was still making the same Kingdom of the Sun that he always been, while Dindal's footage was poppy, zany, and most importantly - way more popular with test audiences. Late in 1998, an executive who has never been publicly identified, though I'd bet money it was Michael Eisner or maybe Peter Schneider, told Randy Fullmer that Kingdom of the Sun was "this close" - finger and thumb a half-inch apart - from being shut down. Then came the soul-searching: Fullmer had to communicate to Allers the company's extreme terror for the direction the project was going, and the lack of speed with which it was going there. Allers was shocked and hurt, and rather than compromise his vision for the sake of release dates and a perceived lack of box office potential, he asked to be taken off of the project. With him went several important animators, furious at the company and proud to stick by the captain of their sinking ship.
Eisner was furious, and ready to write off the tens of millions of dollars already invested in the project, if Fullmer couldn't prove, in two weeks, that there was still a releasable movie to be made here. So the producer grabbed Dindal, told him what was going on, and the two spent a feverish two weeks coming up with the pitch, starting by scrapping the Prince and the Pauper angle. Manco (renamed Kuzco) and Yzma both worked, but they were both total assholes, so the movie needed a sweet character for the audience to identify with. Thus was Pacha turned into a roly-poly husband and father, and Yzma given a well-meaning, muscular, dumb-as-a-rock bodyguard named Kronk. The Sting songs were too serious and artsy and the actors couldn't sing them - out they go (the particulars of that, and how badly it disappointed the songwriter, was documented in The Sweatbox, an essentially unfindable movie directed by Sting's wife, Trudie Styler. Even I know it only by reputation). Any trace of artistry and seriousness was tossed out for comedy and hijinks. Eisner very begrudgingly okayed this new direction, as long as Fullmer and Dindal could still get it out for the release date, a scant 18 months away. This was an obvious impossibility, but the only extension they were able to finagle was for an extra few months: the newly re-titled The Emperor's New Groove would get Dinosaur's Christmas slot, but that was the best that Eisner could or would do.
Inspired by desperation, Dindal - now serving as sole director, the first man with such a privilege since Wolfgang Reitherman in the 1970s - oversaw the simplest movie ever released by Disney Feature Animation, with a marked de-emphasis on detail or particularly involved backgrounds. It is also, and I do not think it likely that this is a coincidence, the most outright fun of them; there is nothing lazier than comparing funny animation to the Looney Tunes in the '50s, but damned if I can come up with a better thing to say about The Emperor's New Groove than that it appears that Bugs Bunny found his way into a film with Disney character animation. Which I know is what I said about Hercules, but that's just the way of it: in a lot of different ways, from the stylised character design to the altogether contemporary mood of the humor to the bright, flashy colors, the 1997 feels in a great many ways like a dry run for the much more successful Emperor, despite the fact that there wasn't very much overlap between the two projects' crews: only Nik Ranieri served as supervising animator on both (overseeing Hades in the first film, and Kuzco, both as human and as a llama, here).
When the dust had all settled, here's what the new story looks like: the day before his 18th birthday, the monstrously self-absorbed Emperor Kuzco (still David Spade) informs the placid llama herder and village elder Pacha (John Goodman) that the latter's quiet mountain home is about to be replaced by Kuzcotopia, a massive gilded summer home and water park. He also sees fit to fire his extremely ancient advisor, Yzma (still Eartha Kitt), largely because she keeps trying to run the country behind his back. Where Pacha takes his lumps with nothing but depression and sorrow, Yzma decides to be a bit more active: she has Kronk (Patrick Warburton) poison Kuzco with what proves to be essence of llama, turning the boy king into a talking animal; the back-up plan is for Kronk to dump Kuzco into the river. He suffers a crisis of conscience, and in short order Kuzco ends up on Pacha's cart, thus beginning a journey back to the capital, with Pacha aiding the llama-emperor despite realising that Kuzco is a world-class jerk that nobody likes. Meanwhile, Yzma and Kronk are in the same jungle, looking for the missing llama, to make sure that he never comes back to trouble her new reign.
I dislike anachronistic modern humor in animation just about as much as anyone - have I mentioned that? - so it even amazes me how outstandingly funny I find nearly all of The Emperor's New Groove; though of course, taste dictates all, and the film's box office take south of $90 million demonstrates that some people at least don't share my affection for the absurdities of e.g. a withered old hag in pre-Colombian South America behaving rather like a mid-20th Century mad scientist, complete with giant beakers of bubbling colored liquids. It all comes back to that intensely simple visual style: even more than Hercules, this film is such a flat-out cartoon that its humor has a certain rightness. It is frankly immature and silly, though those things do not imply nor require that it accordingly childish, and compared to so many of the comic animated films that followed, one never senses that Emperor is being pitched to the cheap seats just to make sure the tykes are entertained (for a start, it has not a single fart or poop joke, the banes of modern children's comedy; even the achingly sincere and prestigious Hunchback of Notre Dame can't make the same claim). Instead, it has a kind of balls-out screwball foolishness, humor drawn out of a very adult approach to being completely stupid.
Take this line, delivered by the impeccably dense Kronk when a flickering light-bulb finally turns on and he clues in to Yzma's plan: "Oh, right. The poison. The poison for Kuzco, the poison chosen especially to kill Kuzco, Kuzco's poison. That poison?" Delivered in Warburton's customary deadpan, that bit of over-wrought silliness absolutely kills; and in general, it would not do to pass by without mentioning how valuable the four leads are to the film's success. Warburton gets my best-in-show honors (it seems certain that his stellar work here led to his being cast in the career-peak role of Brock Sampson on the fantastic Adult Swim series The Venture Bros., which has a rather similar arch-goofy tone to The Emperor's New Groove, although with a much more cynical and vulgar pitch). But as I was saying, the whole movie is full of moments like that: too squirrelly to be be rightly called "dry humor", and too dry to be completely absurd. Whatever kind of humor it is, I for one think it works outstandingly well, and though I know certain segments of the Disney faithful have ever been turned off by the film's hyper-modernist sensibility, for me it is an unmitigated delight.
I mean, it's not like the film has to sacrifice any of the customary Disney quality to get where it's going: this animation is as fantastic as ever, even if it lacks the painterly richness of some of the more readily-canonised Disney features. I particularly enjoy the harsh angles of the character design, which emphasises the characters' "drawn" quality while not making them look so sketchy and chintzy as the xerography-enforced style of the 1960s and '70s at the studio; it is a playful, sassy look that matches the zany screenplay rather nicely. Dale Baer's supervising work on Yzma is particularly excellent, taking up after Andreas Deja stormed away from the character in solidarity with Allers: built something like a parody of Maleficent, with her reed-thin body in blacks and purples and her corpse-colored flesh, she is an outstanding triumph of comic acting in animation, with facial expressions that might not win any fans from the contingent who consider, I don't know, the exquisitely subtle gestures and lines of the Glen Keane/Mark Henn approach to character animation to be the one true way, but I certainly didn't mind it. She'd have been right at home in any given Chuck Jones short (that's twice I've said his name, but he seems to me the key reference point in talking about this film's particular approach to animated comedy), with her big, unsubtle eyes and twitchy movements. Bless Disney and their decades-long tradition of quality, but it's never a criticism to say that something reminds you of Chuck Jones.
Having a single director on the project, especially one given such an unusual level of control by a company eager to have anything useful made as quickly as possible, proved to be a great benefit to Emperor, for Dindal proved to have outstanding comic timing, and the film has as much distinct personality as any other Disney feature for several years in either direction: the safe, buffered edges that seem to have been the result of careful corporate oversight and a too-protective approach to the brand name is nowhere to be found in this movie. Again, I think it all comes down to desperation: Eisner had written this project off and moved his attention to the much more prestigious movies coming down the pike, leaving Dindal and Fullmer with an unusually free hand to pursue an end result that simply doesn't fit in right between Tarzan and Fantasia 2000 on the one hand, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire on the other. It lacks any of the stuffiness that can be found in even the most outstanding of the company's Renaissance-era masterpieces, finding success in being quippy and hip and full of coy little jokes about that same stuffiness (I love that Yzma's near-demise is such a pissy little parody of the tendency of Disney villains to fall from great heights).
Clearly, this is not what Disney was looking for, nor did audiences have much use for it, but to my eyes this the freshest and boldest experiment in Disney feature animation's history: an attempt to chase all the way to completion a different kind of aesthetic and attitude that had only made token appearances in some of the studio's films up to that point, but never defined a single project to this degree. They'd make one last stab in this direction before the whole damn studio folded, and it was nowhere near so effective; but at least we'll always have The Emperor's New Groove, the single outstandingly snotty, anarchic exception to the carefully-regimented perfection that led so many people to declaim Disney, rightly or wrongly, as hopelessly conservative. I don't agree with that conclusion about the studio, but I still appreciate the gasp of fresh air that this amazingly unserious comedy represented in what would shortly reveal itself as the death spasm of a once-proud Hollywood institution.