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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.

"endless surprises"

"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."

"similar sensibilities"

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 artistically.

"Mark has an amazing sense of humor and a natural instinct for dealing with people," adds Fullmer.

Published April 5, 2001

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