Disney's new animated feature The Emperor's New Groove arrives with the stigma of having originally been conceived as a far grander film, an animated epic about the Incan empire called Kingdom Of The Sun. The story, set to songs by Sting, was subsequently scrapped, and Kingdom radically reworked into a more modest film. If only successes like Dinosaur turned out half as well as this unflaggingly amusing failure. Groove retains Kingdom's pre-Columbian South American setting, employing it as a backdrop for a comedy concerning the adventures of a self-centered emperor (voiced by David Spade) whose unexpected transformation into a talking llama forces him to re-evaluate his priorities. Inadvertently placed in the care of a good-natured peasant (John Goodman) whose home Spade had recently decided to destroy to make way for a summer palace, Spade learns some kid-friendly lessons about selflessness while Groove maintains its adult-friendly level of comic sophistication. Spade and Goodman make a terrific comic team, with the former's barbed delivery nicely complementing the latter's easygoing charm. They're joined by another well-cast pair—Eartha Kitt as a cronelike villainess and Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld's Puddy) as her dull-witted henchman—but the film's greatest strength comes from its willingness to think outside formula. By limiting the songs to a jokey opening number sung by Tom Jones and the obligatory closing-credits ballad, Groove gains more room for a wide variety of well-crafted gags. Willing to be unabashedly cartoonish, verbally witty, and, rare for animation, periodically silent, The Emperor's New Groove, whatever its origins, is one of the most enjoyable animated comedies this side of the Toy Story films.
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