Family movies seem awfully scarce at theaters this holiday season, much less family holiday movies. Little wonder the “Grinch” has dominated the box office for the last few weeks and cleared up the karmic slush left behind two years back by “Jack Frost.”
Now Disney has tossed “The Emperor’s New Groove” into the seasonal offerings, and a good thing, too. Not that this animated Incan movie has anything to do with yuletide Eartha Kitt as the voice of the villainess doesn’t break into “Santa Baby” but it’s a much-needed family comedy with appeal for the very youngest as well as the accompanying guardian.
Six years in the making, the film whittled its epic visions (its former title had been “Kingdom of the Sun”) down to a buddy movie, so put any “Lion King” or “Mulan” expectations out of the way. Actually, it’s a buddy-llama movie, with David Spade as the voice of spoiled, callous emperor Kuzco who, in an assassination attempt gone awry, becomes a llama instead of a dead man. He falls under the inadvertent herdsmanship of the nearby village leader and congenial lunk, Pacha (John Goodman). The good-hearted peasant feels compelled to help the temperamental llama royal, even though the emperor intends to raze Pacha’s family home of six centuries for an imperial summer getaway.
The miscreants in this case are Kuzco’s adviser, Yzma (deliciously voiced by Kitt), and her twentysomething assistant, Kronk (Patrick Warburton). “Groove” deliberately and comically upends the Disney model of the good protagonist vanquishing a pitiless, wrinkled, whip-thin foe. While Yzma fits the mold, her cause may strike at the hearts of white-collar workers everywhere: After she’s caught seated at the throne again dealing with court matters (such as dismissing a peasant with the effrontery to ask for food), Kuzco summarily fires her (“call it downsizing” he says in a string of corporate layoff-speak). Her appeal that she raised him like a son doesn’t ruffle the 17-year-old brat, and soon her seething frustrations turn into murderous vengeance.
As for Kuzco, there is little that is redeeming about him. He punts an elderly hunchbacked peasant who accidentally stumbles in the middle of his self-tribute dance sequence, complete with a personal theme singer (Tom Jones). Nor does his llama transformation daunt his double-dealing nature, perfectly conveyed by Spade’s characteristic snideness.
While Kuzco may be the one who needs to undergo a spiritual overhaul, the other humorous moral struggle is Kronk’s. Less inept than artlessly childlike, the cheery muscular sidekick consults with his “shoulder angel” and devil after being given a bloody directive. For instance, when he tries to poison the young emperor over dinner, Kronk (a gourmand) is so distracted by spinach puffs that he mixes up the wine glasses. With a little more savviness, the talented sidekick would probably have been the hero in a more typical Disney film.
The Incan setting is entirely incidental, so no ancient history or geography lessons here. There’s not even a whisper of Peruvian pipes in Kuzco’s Caribbean-flavored dance tribute, which features Irish step-dancing and a Welsh singer. The biological conversion doesn’t lend itself to any husbandry humor (except when Kuzco first discovers his change and starts sobbing over his lost beauty: “Augh! Llama face! Llama face!”).
Instead, the irreverence of “Groove” is of the “Animaniacs” or “Tiny Toon” ilk. The jokes strictly revolve around Kuzco’s insolence, which is well-balanced by Pacha’s obstinate faith in man’s goodness, and the villainous duo’s haplessness. It’s worth the family outing and besides, who can resist Tom Jones as the royal theme singer?