The Emperor’s New Groove has one of the more troubled production histories of any Disney animated feature. In its over six years of development and production, the story went from its original concept as a more traditional Disney musical entitled Kingdom in the Sun to an adaption of the Hans Christian Andersen, to whatever the final product Dindal turned it into is.
When he wrapped up on The Lion King in 1994, Roger Allers immediately started work on this project, then titled Kingdom of the Sun. Also on board was supervising animator Andreas Deja, famous for his flamboyant villains, and producer Randy Fullmer. In a bit of an animation coup, they brought in Sting to do the music on the project.
The Emperor’s New Groove Story
The story was very similar to the The Prince and the Pauper with a greedy, selfish emperor (voiced by David Spade) who finds a peasant (voiced by Owen Wilson) who looks just like him, and the two switch places. Deja’s Yzma catches wind of the switch and turns the real emperor into a llama and threatens to reveal the pauper’s identity unless he becomes her slave. The emperor-llama learns humility in his new form, and even comes to love a girl llama-herder. Together, the girl and the llama set out to undo the witch’s plans. From there we would proceed to a standard happy Disney-style ending.
Seeing a story too similar to many other existing The Prince and the Pauper stories (including at least one from Disney itself!), and seeing Allers as essentially lifeless, the studio brought in Disney effects editor and Warner Bros.’s Cats Don’t Dance director Mark Dindal. The hopes were that Dindal could add some music, some comedy and bring the story to life. What happened was the project was split in two- Allers’ sweeping epic version and Dindals’ singing and dancing version.
At the beginning of 1999, production had still not started, and this put the July 2000 release date in jeopardy. With deals already in place, the release date was set in stone. Under pressure to perform or quit, Allers left the film. Producer Dindal, Fullmer, halted production for six months to retool the project and, with writers Chris Williams and David Reynolds, overhauled the film completely.
When the four reviled their new film, everything had changed. It was now titled The Emperor’s New Groove, and was now a buddy film. Gone were the sun-capturing plot, the look-alike peasant, and the llama-herder love interest, and animator Andreas Deja, who moved to Florida to work on Lilo & Stitch. And the Sting music… that stung.
The Emperor’s New Groove is only the second Disney cartoon feature not based on a previous story, and in those places where irony can’t carry the story, it suffers greatly. The plot concerns Kuzco (Spade), an egocentric emperor of a vaguely Aztec society. As is par for the course in this kind of cartoon, Kuzco is unaware that Yzma (Eartha Kitt), his assistant, wants to do him in and take over his reign.
Of the recent breed of “hip” Disney cartoons, The Emperor’s New Groove is probably the most painful. It seems geared to the “Seinfeld” generation, that prefers irony served up in huge doses and lightning pacing. (The villainess’ dopey sidekick is voiced by Patrick Warburton, who rode a similar role to fame on “Seinfeld.”) But chances are, the same audience which wants to distance itself from emotion wouldn’t be caught dead at a Disney cartoon in the first place.
Ultimately, the budget blossomed to over 100 million dollars. In its theatrical release, the film brought in about 170 million gross.