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Disney Moves to 'New Groove'

The animated buddy-and-beast film steps away from the studio's usual rhythms.


Once upon a time in a far-off mountain kingdom that sort of resembled pre-Columbian South America, there lived an arrogant young emperor who sort of dressed like an Inca and took pleasure in making everyone's life in the palace miserable.

As fate would have it, this royal brat angered his power-hungry court advisor, who used a magic potion to turn the emperor into a long-necked talking llama.

Such is the curious premise behind Disney's new animated fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Groove," a quirky, buddy-and-the-beast comedy that arrives Friday in theaters nationwide. Did we also mention that the emperor is so mean that he lies to his subjects, hurls insults at a bevy of prospective brides, and tosses an old man out of an upper-story window because he threw off the emperor's style, or in the parlance of the movie, his "groove"?

Featuring the voices of comedian David Spade of the NBC sitcom "Just Shoot Me" as the sarcastic and insensitive emperor, Kuzco; actor John Goodman of "Roseanne" fame as the humble peasant Pacha; and singer Eartha Kitt as the evil advisor Yzma, the film can be viewed either as a refreshing departure from formulaic Disney fables of years past, or as a dramatic break that could leave loyal Disney fans scratching their heads. Either way, the film poses a unique marketing challenge for the studio.

With a price tag of around $80 million, the project has had a long and arduous history. Originally called "Kingdom of the Sun," it was envisioned back in 1994 as an epic romantic drama with a "Prince and the Pauper" theme, complete with an ambitious song score written by Grammy winner Sting in collaboration with musician-composer David Hartley.

But by 1998 the filmmakers realized the project was misfiring. The decision was made to retool the story. Instead of a romantic drama with a grand musical score, it became a comic buddy adventure. The old songs were jettisoned, and Sting agreed to write two new ones--"Perfect World" and "My Funny Friend and Me."

Such a process is a costly one, particularly in animation, where storyboarding is a crucial part of the creative process. But Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Feature Animation, who has supervised such big Disney animated films as "Pocahontas" and "Tarzan," said it isn't unusual for films to go through the drastic make-over that befell "The Emperor's New Groove."

"A movie begins to emerge as you are making it," Schumacher explained. "It's a lot like writing a novel or a play. It takes shape over a long period of time."

Producer Randy Fullmer gave one example of how the original story failed to jell.

"We wanted to set it in the 1400s before the Spanish came [to South America]," Fullmer recalled. "The Spanish brought the wheel, but we had to have a cart on the storyboard. We debated for three hours whether to have a wheel on the cart. At the end of the day, it hit several of us. We are really on the wrong track. We are not trying to make a documentary on the Incas. We are just trying to have fun."

As a result, the movie retains its pre-Columbian flavor but avoids pinpointing an exact culture or people such as the Incas (despite the similarity of the main character's name to that of the Incan capital of Cuzco).

Viewed from one perspective, "The Emperor's New Groove" is an attempt by Disney to think "out of the box" with humor and style that is more contemporary than the studio's traditional offerings. The success of hipper family fare such as Universal's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" could bode well for the studio.

But with a puzzling title, an unfamiliar story line, a vague sense of locale, an unlikable lead character and an arch-villainess who can't begin to compare with the frightening, apple-bearing witch in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the question becomes whether Disney is too far off its usual animated groove.

For instance, in "Mulan," Eddie Murphy's dragon character served as comic relief with his physical humor as well as smart-alecky dialogue. In "The Emperor's New Groove," everybody is comic relief. Indeed, the frenetic pace and wild-eyed humor is so un-Disney at times that some who've seen advance screenings joke that it must have been conceived as a Looney Tunes cartoon at Warner Bros.

Directed by Mark Dindal ("Cats Don't Dance"), the film is spiced with wisecracking dialogue supplied by screenwriter David Reynolds, one of the original gag writers on Conan O'Brien's NBC talk show.

Dindal and producer Fullmer (artistic coordinator on "The Lion King") denied that Disney deliberately fuzzed up the movie's locale or whether the characters were Incas to avoid comparisons to DreamWorks' 1999 animated adventure "The Road to El Dorado," which had a villain based on Spanish explorer Cortes; the film was a critical and commercial disappointment.

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