- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2000

FOUR STARS
TITLE: "The Emperor's New Groove"
RATING: G (Fleeting slapstick vulgarity)
CREDITS: Directed by Mark Dindal
RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes
''The Emperor's New Groove," which might be more accurately called "The Emperor Is a Llama," rivals "Bring It On" as the year's happiest and wittiest major studio sleeper.
Discovering such a stealth classic is always fun, given Hollywood's obsession with overpromotion. Movies rarely get a chance to sneak up on the public in this day and age.
The film is a fresh and playful animated creation by Disney studios. "New Groove" isn't a sequel or remake. It doesn't derive from a familiar, commercially safe property. It did evolve out of an abandoned Disney animated 1996 project, "Kingdom of the Sun." This forerunner began to discourage many collaborators by taking a turn for the somber and portentous. A comedic revamp was authorized two years later, and the results have proved delightful.
The turnaround may owe something to screenwriter David Reynolds, a former Conan O'Brien staffer who has contributed dialogue and gags to Disney and Pixar animated features.
"New Groove" teems with verbal sophistication that is flexible enough to tickle both children and grown-ups. It also thrives on a farcical banishment and chase plot that energizes all the animators recruited by director Mark Dindal. They give 80 minutes of screen time to the humorous high spirits and velocity one associates with rollicking, virtuoso cartoons that run about 8 minutes.
The film is set in a crisp, uncluttered cartoon simulation of the Andes in a pre-Columbian time frame. It pairs off comedy teams. David Spade has the perfect tone for the smarty-pants narrator, a smug young punk of a monarch named Kuzco who must befriend John Goodman as the voice of a big, goodhearted peasant and family man named Pacha.
Kuzco initially treats his eventual rescuer with utter disdain. He learns humility after being victimized by a court hag called Yzma (Eartha Kitt), who instructs her hulking, resourceful and somewhat slow-witted manservant, Kronk (Patrick Warburton, in a role destined to overshadow his Puddy on "Seinfeld" as an audience favorite), to administer a magic potion.
"Tasty," comments Kuzco, before flopping face down in his dinner plate.
The potion is not quite foolproof. It transforms the emperor into a llama, instead of something smaller and less ambulatory. He escapes, hiding in the back of Pacha's cart.
Yzma and Kronk (never a bad guy, just a bad instrument in the hands of the emaciated and power-hungry Yzma) pursue him into the countryside and jungle.
Kuzco and Pacha elude deathtraps galore. They eventually double back to the palace for a spectacular and amusing slapstick finale.
"New Groove" should prove an exceptional credit for Mr. Spade and Mr. Warburton, who couldn't have sold their souls for better "invisible" roles. Kuzco and Kronk exploit their distinctive vocal styles and personalities to perfection, giving audiences plenty to savor and even mimic for a long time to come.
"New Groove," which is as loose as a Marx Brothers or Crosby-Hope "Road" farce, finds it amusing to digress from the plot in ways that need to be scolded or mocked by Kuzco the narrator.
Mr. Spade is a past master at that sort of thing. Kronk proves a comic pseudomenace of so many parts that he'll probably lend himself to endless mascot duty among children. The movie already champions him as chef, linguist and scoutmaster. He could prove an enormously popular and enduring asset to the Disney cartoon family.
The film is handsomely designed, but it is so streamlined for comic characterization and slapstick gags that it's easy to underestimate its graphic cleverness and sophistication. "New Groove" is irresistibly new and groovy.


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