Week 40: The Emperor’s New Groove

First Theatrical Release: December 15, 2000

First Home Viewing Release: May 1, 2001

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Where I Found It: A friend’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Passed, barely. Female characters include Yzma, Pacha’s wife, and Pacha’s daughter. Wife and daughter talk about brother. Yzma and Pacha’s wife talk about Pacha … and then BRIEFLY talk about the doorknob after Pacha’s wife locks Yzma in a closet. That conversation is what gets this movie a passing score.

My sister and I drove through a borderline blizzard to see this movie when it was playing in a theater an hour away from home. It never came to our local theater, which showed how quickly Disney had plummeted from its Renaissance years. My mother heartily protested our going, and I would have done the same thing in her position. But what good is a driver’s license, a brain that’s not done developing yet, and society’s assurance that you are an adult at age 18 and don’t have to listen to your mom if it doesn’t let you drive an hour in bad weather to see a Disney movie?

It was not worth risking our lives/safety over. We found it to be an enjoyable movie but not a “magical” one. In later years my sister developed a deeper appreciation for it. I was disappointed to find that I had not.

This movie does have SOME things going for it. Namely …

  1. yzma catCats. OMG, this movie invokes cat humor on THREE distinct occasions. We get foreshadowing of all the cat goodness to come early on, when a man trips on a sleeping cat and falls down the stairs to have the cat land on his head. (I could not find ANY clips or images of this online, but it really happened, I swear!) Then in the midst of all the vicious jaguars that chase down llama Kuzco is this one random and adorable jaguar kitten. This, of course, is all just foreplay to Yzma’s transformation into a cat for the last few minutes of the movie. This was before cat videos and memes ruled the Internet, so I think it’s safe to say that The Emperor’s New Groove was ahead of its time.
  2. A pregnant lady. Because there are not enough pregnant ladies in the animated canon. In fact, I think Yzma’s wife is the only Disney lady to ever be pregnant onscreen.
  3. Moral ambiguity. It’s somewhat disconcerting to me that Kuzco is so likeable even when he is being a total ass for the majority of the movie. Why is this? Just because he’s funny? Can a sense of humor REALLY overcome the fact that the guy threw an old dude out a window? By movie’s end, he’s not a paragon of virtue but has just slid a little toward the “decent human being” end of the spectrum. And somehow Disney manages to make that feel satisfying. Eh, he was a jerk, but I liked him from the beginning! And now he’s not bulldozing peasants’ houses for his own indulgences? What a guy!!

But ultimately this movie just doesn’t do much for me, despite the cats. So here’s what the movie did NOT have going for it.

  1. It didn’t make me laugh even once (again, despite the cats), even though I hadn’t seen it in 15 years and thus it was basically “new” to me again. Also, I realized that it’s essentially a “buddy comedy” — the subgenre of comedy about two dudes who can’t stand each other, get thrown together for some experience (usually a road trip), and in the end get all male-bondy. This is not a sub-genre that I’m particularly fond of, and I guess The Emperor’s New Groove is no different.
  2. yzma legIt resorts too often to agist and sexist humor. Yzma’s age is played for laughs again and again, most notably near the end when she begins to hike up her dress to get at a dagger and everyone is horrified that she would expose so much elderly flesh. Contrast this against the elderly dude we see at the beginning of the movie (the one Kuzco tosses out his window for messing with his “groove”), who is also played for laughs, but is also portrayed as mischievous and upbeat. Message? Old women are gross, and that makes them funny; old men are sweet and mischievous, and that makes them funny. Kuzco uses “ladies first,” as an insult when he is referring to Pacha, and in the opening we see him insult a line of five unattainably beautiful women with the words, “hate your hair,” “yikes,” “not likely,” and “let me guess — you have a GREAT personality?” BUT LACEY, you are surely shouting at me now, THIS IS ALL IN SERVICE TO SHOWING FOLKS WHAT A STUCK UP ASS KUZCO IS. To which I would reply, you’re right. Which leads me to …
  3. Moral ambiguity. (Yes, it can be on both lists.) I’m going to jump off the bullet bandwagon now so that I have space for a proper rant.

kuzcoSo, let’s see. On he one hand, we have Kuzco, who is undisputably a jerk, insulting beautiful women, demanding constant service, evicting peasants from their homes for his own selfish plans, and oh, let’s not forget, THROWING OLD PEOPLE OUT WINDOWS. If this isn’t villain material, I don’t know what is. But somehow we know Kuzco is NOT the villain here — he is the protagonist. Our hints are that the movie opens with him, that he is young and handsome, that he is being preyed upon by the “real” villain (more on that in a bit), and that he is somehow likable despite being a total jerkwad (probably because of the young and handsome thing, along with the fact that he’s funny. Apparently being funny covers a multitude of sins.)

On the other hand, we have Yzma, who is old and decrepit with an inept and humorous sidekick. She has a secret layer with lots of wiggy potions, wants to do Kuzco’s job, and has plans to kill him. That’s how we know she is the villain.

emperors-new-groove-yzma-throneBut looked at objectively, I just can’t see why we should root for Kuzco instead of Yzma. Sure, Yzma has a murder plot against her emperor — but let’s face it, he SUCKS as an emperor. We don’t even get a real sense of her motives for wanting his position — it’s certainly possible that she wants it because she thinks she can do a better job of it than he can, and she might even be right. And why is PLOTTING to kill someone any worse than killing someone on a whim by throwing him out the window for a trivial offense? Or killing someone slowly by evicting him and interfering with his livelihood? YES, it is true that neither the old guy thrown out the window nor Pacha actually died from Kuzco’s actions, but they very well could have. And for the record, Kuzco didn’t die from Yzma’s actions, either. So, again, we’re left with two pretty abhorrent people, and yet Kuzco is the one we’re supposed to root for.

This seems like a case of assigning morality based on youth, looks, and charisma — none of which a moral person make. This isn’t about who would more fun to party with, but who is actually a more decent human being.

Of course, Kuzco proves himself the more “decent human being” by the movie’s end because he “changes,” but that’s only because, as the protagonist, he gets the benefit of a deeper development. And just because you’ve decided not to evict the man who essentially saved your life doesn’t mean that you’ve become a decent human being. It just means you’re less of an ass-wipe than you were 70 minutes ago.

emperor familyI just don’t find it all that satisfying to see a spoiled brat ultimately end up getting exactly what he wanted in the first place, just on a different hill. Not even an abundance of cats was enough to redeem him.



  1. Pingback: My Year – Final-ish Thoughts (and Top 10) | A Year in Disney Movies
  2. Achille Talon · July 4, 2016

    You just did the most hilarious typo. You wrote that “Yzma’s wife” was the first pregnant lady in the Disney animated canon. YZMA’S WIFE.


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