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The Emperor's New Groove: The New Groove Edition DVD Review

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Theatrical Release: December 15, 2000 / Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Mark Dindal / Writers: Chris Williams, Mark Dindal (story); David Reynolds (screenplay); Roger Allers, Matthew Jacobs (original story)

Voice Cast: David Spade (Kuzco), John Goodman (Pacha), Eartha Kitt (Yzma), Patrick Warburton (Kronk), Wendie Malick (ChiCha), Kellyann Kelso (Chaca), Eli Russell Linnetz (Tipo), Bob Bergen (Bucky), Patti Deutsch (Waitress), John Fiedler (Old Man)

Songs: Tom Jones - "Perfect World", Sting - "My Funny Friend and Me"

In the late 1990s, having seen box office returns drop on the grand animated musicals they released to theaters each summer, Walt Disney Pictures decided to tinker with the formula that had ushered in critical acclaim, unprecedented grosses, and a so-called "Renaissance" for the medium beginning with 1989's The Little Mermaid. The profits turned by films like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules were enough to qualify them as hits, especially with overseas engagements more than doubling domestic intakes. But it was clear that the remarkable crescendo of grosses which put Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in record books was not progressing any further, and that the Feature Animation department's latest output was not dazzling critics or audiences in the same way their works earlier in the decade had. A strong response to something slightly different -- Tarzan -- somehow confirmed that the once-infallible musical/comedy/romance structure had worn out its welcome and that Disney needed to find new and different ways to inspire moviegoers with their animated tales.

Meanwhile, before Tarzan even reached theaters, the studio was already at work on something else that would wind up being rather experimental or at least a noticeable departure from the preceding Feature Animation traditions. That film was Kingdom of the Sun, envisioned as a grand South American epic with multiple songs written by Sting and a story inspired by Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. This project ultimately became The Emperor's New Groove, an irony-heavy buddy comedy which would retain an Incan-esque empire setting and little else from its original designs. Severely underpromoted and relegated to an unusual mid-December opening, even with some favorable reviews, Groove would muster only $89 million domestically (a tad below its estimated $100 million production budget) and slightly less overseas, qualifying its as one of the department's weakest-performing films in recent memory.

At the foreground of this humorous tale are four starkly different characters whose paths cross. The protagonist of the title, Kuzco (voiced by the ever-sarcastic David Spade), is a self-centered teenaged emperor who has gotten his way from birth. Pacha (boasting the commanding vocals of John Goodman, as the start of a short but fruitful relationship between the actor and Disney) is a large, kindhearted peasant whose family lives on the hill where Kuzco plans to build a new dream home. Then, there are the emperor's aging, power-hungry advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her muscular, dim-witted young guy Kronk (an ace performance by the likable Patrick Warburton). Early on, Kuzco's firing of Yzma sets off her instant desire for revenge, which is realized when she and Kronk attempt to fatally poison the spoiled ruler. Their plan goes awry when Kuzco does not die, instead turning into a llama. This botched job (the result of unclear poison labeling) sets the tone and stage for the rest of the film.

Kuzco reveals his plans for Kuzcotopia to an understandably upset Pacha. Yzma and Kronk get some help from Bucky the Squirrel.

Following Kronk's conflicted efforts to finish off the task, Kuzco winds up alive at the home of Pacha, his pregnant wife ChiCha (Wendie Malick), and their two hyper children. Though physically, Kuzco now resembles an unattractive llama, his personality has not changed at all and he has lost neither his ability to talk nor his flair for sarcasm. When Pacha nobly agrees to take the emperor back to the palace with the hopes of having his humanity restored, the farmer sets himself up for a long dangerous trek where his interests will, as usual, take backseat to Kuzco's whims. Meanwhile, at their destination, Yzma has mourned Kuzco's presumed death briefly and publicly, before happily taking over.

With a large and random sense of humor, Groove follows Kuzco and Pacha's journey to the palace, which like any buddy comedy, is filled with amusing obstacles, from a faulty bridge to a close call at a local diner. Picture a G-rated, Disney-animated version of Tommy Boy, set in ancient Inca, without the car-parts selling plot, and with nemeses much more interesting than Rob Lowe and Bo Derek, and you pretty much have The Emperor's New Groove. You may think that such a beast is a bit of a reach for the creators, and it is, but it is pulled off wonderfully, delivering hearty laughs and a plot that's interesting in spite of being somewhat subservient to the episodic gags. This is the rare entry in Disney's canon which does a better job of entertaining teens and older viewers than the young audience members the name "Disney" widely conjures up. That's not to say the kids won't like it -- there are plenty of large moments that will please anyone who can appreciate goofy images. That's also not to say that Groove is layered with the type of off-color references that Shrek (and subsequent manufactured cartoons) offer -- a sprinkling of mild suggestiveness is the raciest this refreshingly G-rated outing gets. Instead, it's in the stylings and sensibilities of the abundant humor that are bound to be embraced even by those who dismiss Disney films as child's play.

The fresh and wacky nature of the comedy are consistently evident. Aside from the Oscar-nominated Sting tune in the end credits (which while appealing, sounds like it was written for a completely different film), there is just one silly song delivered at the beginning and reprised at the end, which is performed by Kuzco's Theme Song Guy (Tom Jones). To illustrate Kuzco's nonchalant life in power, a fast and witty montage shows him stamping kisses on babies' foreheads and christening ships. The entire film is narrated by Kuzco (often in an interruptive but certainly not unwelcome manner), who acknowledges convention, underscores his character flaws, and makes for an amusing, cynical viewing companion. This device emphasizes the film's perfectly tongue-in-cheek tone, introducing heavy doses of post-modern irony without feeling like the movie is cheating. The result is something which though heavily inspired by the comic shorts of yesteryear (and by Warner Brothers, even more than Disney), feels thoroughly contemporary while mostly avoiding present-day references. Just five years later, it has yet to feel even slightly dated and that may aid in how it holds up over time.

Pacha gets a look at the "demon llama." The arrival of shoulder spirits doesn't make Kronk any less confused.

It would be a shame if the film's story ended with an underwhelming box office run, because though it had to overcome talent changes and drastic revisions, Groove wound up being a clever and highly entertaining film, one which I would strongly argue Disney's in-house animators have not since surpassed in originality, energy, or, believe it or not, artistic quality. Fortunately, this spirited production found new life on home video, where it became the 5th most profitable title of 2001, selling 8.1 million units (more than 75% of those were VHS). Obviously, enough people were won over by this endearingly offbeat comedy for Disney to (for better or worse) expand the life of its characters and in the next few months, we will see both Kronk's New Groove, a direct-to-video follow-up centered on likable, easily-befuddled henchman, and "The Emperor's New Skool", an original animated television series on the Disney Channel.

The Emperor's New Groove was first released to DVD on May 1, 2001. At the time, Disney was favoring two-tier releases for its Feature Animation output, and so, it was concurrently issued in single and double-disc formats. As of 2005, both the standard and the "Ultimate Groove" Collector's Editions were in print and probably due for price reductions. Instead, they have now been discontinued to make way for this third DVD release, titled "The New Groove Edition." That meaningless name basically underscores the pointlessness of this new single-disc DVD, which arrives at the standard disc's original $29.99 SRP price boasting nothing new, save for two deleted scenes from the Collector's Edition, a cardboard slipcover and some different promos for other Disney ventures. One would assume that such a re-release is merely designed to promote Kronk's New Groove, the direct-to-video sequel coming out in two months. That would almost be logical, but outside of a booklet mention and the 30-second promo that has been making the Disney DVD rounds since May, there is little evidence of the cross-marketing that would otherwise appear to drive this release. While Disney has spent the last few years revisiting plenty of movies which left room for improvement in their DVD debuts, The New Groove Edition is a surprising step backwards, which even loses some elements of the original one-disc release and only makes the solid (now out-of-print) Collector's Edition pricier and harder to find.

Buy The Emperor's New Groove: The New Groove Edition from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
DTS 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English),
Dolby Surround (French)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: October 18, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

As both prior DVD releases of The Emperor's New Groove left little room for improvement in picture and sound, it makes sense that this disc would employ the same transfer as before. And so, while there is no noticeable difference among this disc and the previous digital incarnations, the movie still looks and sounds pretty great. It is presented in the 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the preferred dimensions of Disney's CAPS (Computer Animation Paint System) creations, and naturally is enhanced for 16x9 displays. I can't summon any complaints in the video department, as picture quality is about as good as I have seen for a 2-D animated film. Less compression and higher resolution are the only things that could yield more pleasing results. The former was achieved on the Ultimate Groove (its 7.52 Mb/sec average bitrate slightly conquers this disc's 6.5 Mb/sec average) with some detectable evidence (one might notice very minor color banding and edge ringing on large displays), while the latter awaits a high-definition format like the industry's impending frontrunner Blu-Ray for potentially even more visual beauty on capable TV sets. As it is, even with this tighter compression and less visual ambition than its contemporary counterparts, Emperor's is demonstrative of how splendid animation can look on DVD.

Though not announced, the DVD retains a DTS soundtrack along with a Dolby Digital 5.1 variety. Both offer quite the dynamic aural experience expected of modern cinema. The DTS is mixed at a higher volume, but even when set to a comparable level, it ousts the Dolby Digital with an immense soundfield, impressive range, and apt design. Both are top-notch for their classes, though. Amidst the flashy gags and humorous lines, you may not notice the score much, but it is rendered well enough to encompass the viewer and amplify moments without being overdone. The dialogue sounds like it could be delivered live in your living room (unless it's appropriately conveying a certain environment) and despite being a comedy, there are plenty of active sequences to showcase the techies' clever audio skills.

An abandoned neighbor dude is among the choas of the deleted scene "Pacha's Family." Rascal Flatts perform, while a little man in black teaches you how to "Walk the Llama Llama." Five questions like this appear in the first level of "The Emperor's Got Game", which neatly features the new dialogue recorded by Patrick Warburton and Eartha Kitt.

BONUS FEATURES

The first section, Deleted Scenes, is the lone supplements area where The New Groove Edition improves upon the original standard release. That disc only offered the first sequence - the fully-colored (but dark) "Destruction of Pacha's Village." This one also restores The Ultimate Groove's two others edited from storyboards: the bulky "Pacha's Family" (which introduces such wacky characters as the thick-headed grandpa and the stoner dude neighbor) and the "Original Kuzcotopia Ending" (which Sting objected to for being "socially irresponsible"). With the short introductions by producer Randy Fullmer and director Mark Dindal, these three scenes run just under 13 minutes altogether, though no "Play All" option is offered. Unlike the Collector's Edition, the intros and scenes are presented here as chapters, without direct access otherwise.

Music & More holds two music video-esque things. First is Sting's dramatic Oscar-nominated end credits anthem "My Funny Friend and Me" (2:54), presented as a hybrid of a music video and the artist's reflections about working on the film (a sterilized abbreviation of production, to be sure). The performance ineffectively bounces back and forth between Emperor's New Groove film clips and poorly-shot footage of Sting literally behind a microphone. Plus, it gets interrupted throughout for more Sting thoughts. A video and featurette presented separately would have been better, but this is what was done years ago and expecting something new in this "New Groove Edition" is apparently too much. Not to mention that Sting's comments sound almost as heavily edited as Mako's on The Ugly Dachshund DVD.

The video for Rascal Flatts' "Walk the Llama Llama" (1:30) operates on two planes as well, neither of which is too compelling. Occupying most of the screen, the trio of country musicians performs among real live llamas and children (a song which is thankfully not in the film); at the bottom, a little (proportionately speaking) man in black dances around with some instructions for you to follow along. It's a bit confusing and though brief, not worth most viewers' time.

The lone entry under Games & Activities, "The Emperor's Got Game" offers two levels of mild set-top fun, thanks mostly to some witty narration recorded by Patrick Warburton (Kronk) and Eartha Kitt (Yzma). Their banter takes you through the interesting first round where you must correctly answer five trivia questions to get Kuzco from Pacha's place to the palace with Yzma on his trail (wrong answers allow her to catch up). The second part requires pure luck, as you must pour three potions in the correct order to turn Kuzco back to a human. Mathematics dictates there are only six possible combinations, but though I mastered it years ago, it took me six frustrating tries to get it right this time. While diverting for a few minutes, the questions and correct sequence are the same each time, severely limiting replay value.

A real llama appears in the brief featurette "The Research Trip." David Spade tells of his efforts to grow facial hair in "Character Voices." (Not really.) Ian J. Coony speaks on subtle computer use in "CGI Props."

The last heading, Backstage Disney, is where you'll find genuine making-of material, but don't expect to truly delve into the hellish production that transformed this film to the comedy it became.

"Behind the Scenes" holds three brief featurettes. "The Research Trip" (1:26) details with footage and artwork how observations of Machu Piccu, Peru and llamas at a zoo inspired animators. "Character Voices" (5:11) offers only a few unique remarks among the standard praise for the cast, but clips of the four lead actors recording their potent performances are, as always, nice to see. "CGI Props" (1:18) enables 3-D effects technical director Ian J. Coony to explain his job -- to make CGI effects not look computer-y -- with a few visual examples. Together, the three short pieces sample only a few aspects of a much grander production, painting an incomplete picture of the film like blind men forming conclusions about an elephant.

This section also holds the feature-length audio commentary, undoubtedly the standout extra of this meager disc. The primary speakers are producer Randy Fullmer and director Mark Dindal. From time to time, this charismatic pair is joined by the one or more of the following individuals: art director Colin Stimpson, character designer Joseph C. Moshier, head of story Stephen Anderson, Kuzco animator Nik Ranieri, and Pacha animator Bruce W. Smith. It is an immensely compelling discussion, which covers revisions resulting from moviemaking challenges and test screenings, amusing production anecdotes, and various little revealing tidbits (like the briefly-seen llama cactus and Disney's first on-screen pregnancy), all of which is bound to enhance anyone's appreciation for the film.

Of course, there's one aspect of this disc that's new and different, but that is the minimally important "Sneak Peeks." Before the menu loads, the disc plays entirely and individually skippable promos for Lady and the Tramp (now called "Special Edition", though we all know better), the Disney Channel Movie Surfers' fluffy behind-the-scenes looks at The Wild and The Shaggy Dog, Kronk's New Groove, and Tarzan: Special Edition (which, despite what this says repeatedly, is NOT a 2-disc set). The second page of the Sneak Peeks Menu adds further previews for Valiant and Toy Story 2: Special Edition. Ironically, though the Kronk's New Groove preview is mentioned on the press release and would seem to be the only logical reason for repackaging this disc, we get only the same 30-second promo that has been around for five months now rather than the more substantial preview that aired on ABC over the summer or even the longer trailer that has turned up online. You know something's wrong when reviewers notice the misses of a Marketing Department.

Producer Randy Fullmer and Director Mark Dindal introduce the deleted scenes and are the primary participants in the audio commentary. If this animated Main Menu screen looks awfully familiar, it's because Disney has used it before.

Obviously, what is included on this disc only scrapes the surface as far as Emperor's New Groove bonus features go. Missing from the original standard disc are DVD-ROM extras, which in a rare twist, offered more than weblinks and printable junk. While the official website link now merely redirects you to Disney's boring DVD information page, you also got demos of two The Emperor's New Groove software titles, the Action Game and the Groove Center, both of which provide greater and longer fun than the set-top game that was ported over. Disc 2 of the Collector's Edition took you on an all-access tour of Disney's Feature Animation studio, hosted by producer Fullmer and director Dindal with a witty and irreverent style seemingly inspired by both their movie and Pixar's bonus DVDs. There were lots of great supplements to be found on that set, and only a few are contained here. Some of the neat bonuses that are now out of print along with The Ultimate Groove are featurettes on various stages of animation and production, split-screen comparisons, a sound mixing demo, trailers, TV ads, and a publicity gallery. One noteworthy exclusion from that set was a true warts-and-all look at the troubled development Emperor's New Groove sprung from. There was brief discussion of "Kingdom of the Sun" and a gallery of concept art, but nothing on par with the reportedly unflattering 90-minute documentary The Sweatbox, which was co-directed by Sting's wife Trudie Styler and has been closely guarded by Disney, who owns the rights to it. Maybe one day the studio will see fit to release it, but it sounds like that day is a long way off.

The 16x9-enhanced menu screens are the exact same as before, with a few minor changes. For instance, the music is lost from all but the Main and Bonus Features menus, a few cursors have been updated, and the "DTS 5.1" option in "Tweak It" has been moved to "Audio Options" and replaced by the ubiquitous "Register Your DVD" listing. Otherwise, the animation and transitions are entirely intact. In the few instances where new menus were needed, they were simply tweaked from un-ported menus like "DVD-ROM Features." Talk about lazy!

The New Groove Edition delivers on one other promise, made in its initial announcement -- "collectible packaging" -- assuming, that a cardboard slipcover which replicates the DVD front and back cover art and adds a fourth side can be qualified as "collectible." There is an odd opening on the back of the slipcover which reveals the UPC below, which prevents sneaky in-store activity. Inside the black keepcase, there is a 4-page "DVD Guide" which lists all the bonus features (including the 30-second Kronk's New Groove sneak peek) and then provides a map of the disc by listing them all again in a layout of this modest disc (with near-amusingly inaccurate runtimes). Scene selections are on back and that's all that's inside the case.

The odd couple on a lunch date. Pacha and Kuzco are relieved Yzma only wants to show them a dagger.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Emperor's New Groove provides quite a fun time and those who have written off present-day Disney animation altogether should definitely check this film out. It may have them reconsidering their dismissal of the studio's recent work and, at the very least, will keep them entertained for a brisk 78 minutes.

This "New Groove Edition", however, is a worthy candidate for The Most Pointless DVD Re-Release Ever award. Whereas a repromotion, repackaging, or repricing of the fine "Ultimate Groove" 2-Disc Collector's Edition would have made sense, this single-disc affair merely ports over most of what was on the standard release, loses the DVD-ROM extras, and offers nothing new. Well, not absolutely nothing -- there is a 30-second Kronk's New Groove promo (that you have already seen if you've rented or purchased any Disney DVD in the last five months), a cardboard slipcover, and two additional deleted scenes previously relegated to the Collector's Edition. Needless to say, none of these additions lessens the disc's claim for futility or seriously qualifies it as an "upgrade."

If you absolutely don't care about extras, then this DVD does an acceptable job of presenting the film with a light handful of bonuses, but the list price is the same as the nearly-identical disc released 4 years ago. If you've already waited that long, then you might as well keep on waiting for a price drop or sale. If you want all the bells and whistles (and slightly better picture quality), then you'll have to move quickly or pay more than you should, because this nonsensical release also signals the discontinuation of the far more pleasing 2-disc Collector's Edition.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Buy the out-of-print 2-Disc Ultimate Groove Collector's Edition DVD from Amazon.com

Buy the original standard DVD release from Amazon.com

1. Sales figures from Video Business.

Related Reviews
The Emperor's New Groove: Standard & The Ultimate Groove (Collector's Edition)
Tarzan: Special Edition Cinderella: Platinum Edition
Aladdin: Platinum Edition Mulan: Special Edition Treasure Planet

Related Preorders:
Lady and the Tramp: Platinum Edition (February 28)
Kronk's New Groove (December 13)
Toy Story 2: 2-Disc Special Edition (December 26)
"DuckTales" Volume 1 Box Set (November 8)
"Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers" Volume 1 Box Set (November 8)
Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities (December 6)
Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald, Volume Two (December 6)
Valiant (December 13)

Related Pages:
Kronk's New Groove Preview and Pictures
The Emperor's New Groove: #20 in UD's Disney Animated Classics Countdown
Yzma: #14 in UD's Disney Villains Countdown

Reviewed October 16, 2005.

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