EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE, THE
FROM SERIOUS TO SERIOUSLY HILARIOUS
It started out as an epic drama with serious issues and ended up as a wacky frolic, say
the filmmakers, pleasantly surprised at their own work. They mixed absurdity with emotion,
as director Mark Dindal explains.
Like many Disney animated features, The Emperor’s New Groove took shape over
several years – and ended up totally different to the original concept.
The origins of the film date back to 1994, when the creative team began developing a
very different version of the story. Originally titled Kingdom in the Sun, the first
approach was a dramatic story inspired by pre-Columbian legend and prominently featured an
ambitious song score by Sting. As a normal part of the development process, the story took
many unexpected turns along the way. Ultimately, it was decided to take the film in a
whole new direction. In 1998, the story was completely revamped with only two of the main
comedic characters and a few elements from the original treatment retained.
"During the development and creative process, we go down many roads in order to
find the story and characters that appeal to us and which we hope are going to appeal to
our audience," says Thomas Schumacher. "Although this film presented us with
lots of challenges and had more than its share of detours, director Mark Dindal, producer
Randy Fullmer and the entire animation team have done a miraculous job creating a fresh
and original comedy full of endless surprises and with a style and flavor all its own. In
the case of The Emperor's New Groove, changing the direction of the story from a musical
drama to an outrageous comedy required some serious retooling."
Fullmer recalls, "For the first two years, the film was a more serious epic film.
But we reached a point where we realized we weren't having much fun and we really wanted
to go on a different path."
Says Dindal: "We were trying desperately to figure out what to do with the story
and how to give it a new spin, when one of our story guys, Chris Williams, came up with a
much kookier, wackier, crazier version that was also very charming. He had the idea of
making Pacha an older character as opposed to the teenager that he was in the original
story. This spun things in a completely new direction for us and sparked a whole new
approach. Peter Schneider (chairman of The Walt Disney Studios) encouraged us to 'think
outside the box.' He wanted us to turn things upside down and think differently. Along
with Randy and our writer Dave Reynolds, we began to kick things around and it gave us a
new sense of spirit, enthusiasm, and fun.
"absurdity with emotion"
"Kuzco is not your typical Disney lead character - a sympathetic, vulnerable
character who has a desire but somebody is holding him back. He's completely the opposite
of that and winds up in a predicament needing the help of somebody who is very good.
"I have always felt that the more absurd the characters are in a given situation,
the more fun you can have with them," notes Dindal. "One of the things that
really intrigued us was finding a way to mix absurdity with emotion. When you do that you
get the best of both worlds because it doesn't get too sentimental. In this film, we have
a real odd couple - a young guy who only thinks of himself and a common peasant who always
thinks of others. The humor emerges from their extreme personalities."
As the story took off in new directions, existing characters went through some major
personality changes and others were added. One of the new additions was the scene-stealing
character of Yzma's sidekick, Kronk.
David Reynolds, one of Conan O'Brien's original staff writers and whose credits include
dialogue and gags for a variety of Disney animated features, observes, "One day, Mark
and Chris pitched me a scene that had a character very much like what Kronk is now and I
just started laughing at the joke they came up with. I said, 'I know that guy. He's like
Puddy from 'Seinfeld' and he talks like this all the time and doesn't get things quite
right.' I asked them if I could write a scene for that character - the poisoning scene in
the dinner sequence.
"I was thinking about Patrick Warburton as I was writing it and laughing
hysterically. Kronk would be worrying about the dinner and get off track with the real
purpose of what they were trying to do, which was trying to kill Kuzco. It was like a bell
went off and we began thinking about how funny he could be. He clearly wasn't going to do
everything exactly right for Yzma. Patrick's voice was so resonant, we began to rewrite
things for him on the spot at the recording sessions. Mark has a great improv brain and we
tried to find a rhythm or a funnier way of doing things every time out. "David Spade
also made a major contribution with his vocal performance," recalls Reynolds.
"He would always do the first two takes the way it was written and then he would
do his own thing. We would get him in the ballpark and then let him take over to see what
he could do. He's really a very good writer on his own and obviously knows his voice and
persona so well. One of our big challenges was to make audiences care about Kuzco. He's
very arrogant but then he gets knocked around and you come to realize that he's never had
any friends. That gives him a sense of vulnerability."
Once the story had been reworked and the storyboarding process was underway, the
creative team tackled their assignment with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. Fullmer
remembers, "Once we started with the new approach to the story, it took off like a
rocket. I compare the crew to horses at a starting gate - rested, waiting, and anxious to
get started. From the beginning, they got what Mark was going for and had similar
sensibilities about where the film was going. Everyone had a clear sense of the parameters
we were working within and they hit their stride to come up with the best decisions
"Mark has an amazing sense of humor and a natural instinct for dealing with
people," adds Fullmer.
Published April 5, 2001