The Emperor's New Groove 20th anniversary: 5 reasons why it's an underrated Disney gem

Disney movie The Emperor's New Groove has turned 20 years old and, you know what, we think it's a little hard done by.

The movie had one of the bumpiest productions in the studio's history, but we reckon it emerged from the chaos as a likeable and spirited adventure. Join us as we celebrate this underrated family gem, our blog post delving into the characters, voice cast and music.


1. The animation pops

The Emperor's New Groove was the first (and, so far, only) Walt Disney Animation Studios movie to take place in South America. (That is until Encanto arrives in 2021.) The story recounts the scheming Yzma, apparently loyal associate to the Incan emperor Kuzco, who plots to steal his throne. However, Yzma mistakenly turns Kuzco into a llama, and he is thrown into the wilds of the Incan empire. There, he teams up with a villager named Pacha who vows to help Kuzco become human again.

The movie was initially designed as a spectacular, high-concept musical filled with cutting edge-animation techniques. However, the modus operandi changed midway through production. (Scroll down to find out more.) The resulting movie favours a more overtly cartoonish approach with clear angular lines and exaggerated character mannerisms, which the animators derived from the physical performances of the voice cast.

Even if it doesn't exactly rival The Lion King in the visual beauty stakes, The Emperor's New Groove still offers a lot to feast on. From the oranges and golds of Kuzco's palace to the wryly deadpan expressions of Kuzco's llama face, there is attention to detail in both the broader strokes and the more intimate moments. The production team travelled to Peru to research local traditions and parleyed this into the movie, with all manner of subtle details resonating from the ceremonial headdresses to the deadly animals faced by the newly transformed Kuzco when he's thrown from his temple as a llama.

2. Eartha Kitt's performance

Arguably the best and most memorable thing about The Emperor's New Groove is the vocal performance of jazz legend Eartha Kitt. She voices the calculating Disney villain Yzma, and reportedly took great relish getting into the character during her recording sessions. Kitt's performing career was an extraordinary one, including 'Santa Baby' (later covered by Kylie Minogue) and 'Under the Bridges of Paris'.

However, Kitt was also recognised as an actor during her heyday. Orson Welles, no less, described her as "the most exciting woman in the world" and cast her in his 1950 production of Doctor Faustus. (She played the legendarily beautiful Helen of Troy.) Kitt also played Catwoman in the third and final series of cult Adam West TV series, Batman.

Clearly, the intention was to tap into Kitt's musical talents during the early iterations of The Emperor's New Groove. Alas, this didn't exactly work out in the finished product (again, scroll down to find out more), with the character of Yzma less a showboating diva and more a scene-chewing figure of fun. Just think what might have been – actually, you don't have to thin. Here's one of Kitt's musical numbers from the movie.

3. The film overcame a bumpy production history

The Emperor's New Groove was originally intended as a full-blown Disney musical called Kingdom of the Sun, with songs by Sting. However, disappointing feedback from test screenings resulted in a complete overhaul of the story and production department. Many filmmakers and actors were dropped from the project (including Owen Wilson), and several songs were also dumped (including the Yzma tune included above). And the vast majority of Sting's music was also removed, leaving the British music icon somewhat annoyed (understandably).

The film was then retooled into the more conventional knockabout comedy that we now have. The interruptions and changes caused the budget to balloon to $100 million – a hefty sum for an animated movie released in 2000. The movie's troubled production history was documented by Sting's wife Trudie Styler, a noted documentary maker, with the resulting movie called The Sweatbox. It's never been officially released but is said to chart the turbulent shift from Kingdom of the Sun to The Emperor's New Groove.

Given all this background noise, it's notable that The Emperor's New Groove emerged as a charming, offbeat buddy comedy. Who can resist the friendship between a sardonic emperor-turned-llama and his well-intentioned Inca sidekick. And it wasn't all bad news for Sting: his number 'My Funny Friend and Me' did make it into the movie, and was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song. Now there's a Disney happy ending.

4. The talented voice cast

In addition to Eartha Kitt, there's also a prominent role for motor-mouthed American comic David Spade. He voices Kuzco in both his human and llama form, nailing the essence of a spoiled brat forced to live inside the body of a furry animal. Coen brothers regular John Goodman voices the good-natured Pacha – Goodman would later return to Disney to voice Sully in Pixar's Monters Inc. and Monsters University, and Big Daddy in handdrawn Disney animation The Princess and the Frog.

Spade and Goodman are an infectiously entertaining pairing, grounding the story in a classic chalk and cheese antagonistic partnership. There's also a voice cameo for legendary Welsh songster Tom Jones, who voices Kuzco's conductor (simply known as Theme Song Guy). The Tick's Patrick Warburton is also amusing as Yzma's dimwitted henchman Kronk, while Disney veterans Frank Welker (Abu in Aladdin) and Jim Cummings (Ed in The Lion King) flesh out the noises of the various background characters, both human and animal.

5. It went from box office disappointment to meme-friendly family hit

The Emperor's New Groove was the rare Disney movie that failed to ignite the box office, grossing only $169 million against its $100 million budget. But who determines a film's quality by its box office run? After all, look at what happened with The Shawshank Redemption – a flop on release, it's now one of the most celebrated movies of all time.

Not only did The Emperor's New Groove inspire its own TV series, called The Emperor's New School, but a key scene from the movie has helped people get through the minefield that is 2020. People have used the dunderheaded yet loveable Kronk to create memes called 'Apocalypse Bingo', which have been applied to many different scenarios this year. So, twenty years after its initial release, it seems like people are taking The Emperor's New Groove to their hearts after all.

What's your favourite scene in The Emperor's New Groove? Let us know @Cineworld.