Before Tangled wrapped up people’s imaginations and Frozen began its effort to conquer the world, Disney Animation wasn’t enduring its hottest stretch. Sure, it created a bevy of decent-performing titles, but the high bar of the halcyon ’90s heyday of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin wasn’t being hit.
There was a glimmer of light, however: The Emperor’s New Groove. Here’s a rundown for the uninitiated: Kuzco (David Spade), a kid emperor of an ancient Inca civilization, is a punk. He wants to tear down an old village led by Pacha (John Goodman) to construct his vacation getaway and water slide. Kuzco’s advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) has different plans: kill the kid and begin the reign of Yzma. Her lackey Kronk (Patrick Warburton) errs, and instead of poisoning Kuzco, turns him into a llama.
New Groove was released 15 years ago Tuesday. From a purely anecdotal standpoint, it’s not held with the same reverence as some of its contemporaries. Here’s why it’s criminally underrated:
Yzma is a legit scary villain.
It all begins with Kitt’s inspired voice work, oozing with malevolent intent, which enhances Yzma’s vicious evil streak. Yzma is not only the advisor but the de facto mom to Emperor Kuzco. She is starved for power, and will truly stop at nothing to seize the throne. She orders the death of the teen — even if he’s a pain, that’s extreme! While The Lion King‘s Scar wanted Simba killed, and The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula hoped for the same of Ariel, Yzma’s deviousness makes Ursula look like Mother Teresa and she does a better Scar than Scar.
The lead character isn’t initially likable, and that’s refreshing.
Not only is Kuzco not relatable, he’s a legit jerk. The movie begins with him singing a song praising himself, which ends with the defenestration of an old man — maybe the worst thing for a lead character to do in the first few minutes of a Disney movie. Instead of the idealistic young man or ingénue as the hero, Kuzco’s petulance and selfishness sets him up to be humbled. Enter llama transformation.
The rapport between Kuzco and Pacha.
It’s a classic film pairing of two people who don’t like each other or have much in common. Think Midnight Run, but without Robert De Niro F-bombs or violence. Pacha merely wants to preserve his village from becoming a waterslide, up against the tyranny of a brat. But he never stops trying to be earnest and generally helpful. When Kuzco realizes he is the true problem, he links up with the well-to-do husband, father of two, and village leader. From the back-to-back chasm climb to the diner, things couldn’t be happier. Their turbulence makes the resulting bromance and water-sliding all the sweeter.
Kronk. Of course.
Oh, Kronk. Kronkity Kronk Kronk. The lovable Kronk is dim, but he shines in so many ways. For one, he’s a cooking savant. If there was a way to extract him to the real world, he would be a compelling Top Chef contestant — look no further than how he handles the diner in an impossible situation. He’s also a wildlife enthusiast, exhibited by his pro bird-watching and squirrel conversation.
Above all, he’s a large, ripped, disproportionally sized kid, who hums his own thrilling heist music. In the end, Kronk’s faces the reality that he’s not made to be evil, and ultimately saves the day.