"The Emperor's New Groove," another kiddie entry in the holiday-season rush, won't exactly be remembered as one of Disney's more inspired animated releases. The visuals just aren't up to the company's blue-chip standards. The colors aren't nearly as rich and deep as those expected from the studio; and the design, look and overall impact of the movie pale in comparison with last year's "Tarzan." It's an underwhelming effort.
The sophomore feature from "Cats Don't Dance" director Mark Dindal seems half-baked, as if we'd been presented with a truncated version of a larger story. We know this much is true: The exuberant comedy, starring the voices of David Spade and John Goodman, was born as a far more expansive epic. The earliest version was a musical drama, titled "Kingdom of the Sun," inspired by pre-Columbian legend and bolstered by an ambitious song cycle featuring Sting's collaborations with musician/composer David Hartley.
Perhaps Dindal's film was revised because of the similarities between its setting -- South America, vaguely -- and that of Dreamworks' summer release, "The Road to El Dorado." Regardless, the extensive retooling of the production, recounted in a documentary titled "The Sweat Box" (directed by Trudie Styler, Sting's wife), has resulted in a more streamlined film than the one initially envisioned. Few of the major characters survived the overhaul, and the ex-Police chief's vocals were excised from all but two pieces.
The result of the project's six-year journey to completion is a slapstick odd-couple adventure, punctuated with laugh-out-loud wisecracks, which still charms despite its shortcomings. At the heart of the story is Emperor Kuzco (Spade), a footloose ruler with a well-honed sense of entitlement and a caustic remark for every occasion. He's so wealthy and privileged that he has his own swanky theme-song entertainer, voiced by Tom Jones in a funny cameo. The emperor, too, is so insensitive to the needs of others that he's willing to wipe out the home of caring peasant Pacha (Goodman) in the course of constructing a summer resort, to be called Kuzcotopia.
The bratty despot's plans are spoiled when evil, ancient royal adviser Yzma (Eartha Kitt), a disgruntled former employee, tricks her ex-boss into swallowing a potion that turns him into a llama. Yzma, the cunning, scheming wicked witch of this area code, carries out the dirty deed with the help of studly but stupid assistant Kronk. The muscular boy toy, talented at whipping up spinach puffs and other culinary delights, is voiced by Patrick Warburton, and he shares more than a few traits with the actor's dimwitted Puddy character from TV's late, lamented Seinfeld.
Kuzco, too, might be described as a derivation of the annoyingly sarcastic roles Spade has played to the hilt on sitcom "Just Shoot Me," "Saturday Night Live" and in several feature films. Alas, there really is a vulnerable heart buried beneath all that cynicism, and the bulk of "The Emperor's New Groove" is devoted to the title character's struggle to find his inner nice guy. Along the way, he and mismatched traveling companion Pacha survive an endless variety of tough scrapes -- rickety bridges, deadly waterfalls -- and narrow escapes from jaguars, crocodiles, scorpions, bats and other animal and human threats.
Don't be surprised if the former enemies strike up a friendship solid enough to spill over into a direct-to-video sequel.