Midnight Screenings: Disney Cult Films: The Emperor’s New Groove and The Black Cauldron

image_83405e21The Emperor’s New Groove

Ironically born out of the near-implosion of the epic musical it was originally conceived as, the zippy, manic Looney Tunes-indebted The Emperor’s New Groove – rehashed into this state on the quick – was a refreshing burst of bellowing, ricocheting blood into a then-corpse of an animation studio. Especially coming after a series of increasingly calcified attempts to rechristen Beauty and the Beast/The Little Mermaid enormity, the 2000-released Emperor’s induces a brazen, feverish snap, crackle, and pop sorely missing in most of Disney Animation’s mid-‘90s efforts. What was glorious in 1989’s The Little Mermaid had petrified into stifling routine by Pochahantas, Mulan and the like, and The Emperor’s New Groove purifies the experiment began with Aladdin and continued with the lesser Hercules of mining the company’s old enemy, Warner Bros, for a shot of Tex Avery infused whiplash comedy. 1999 is the de facto end of the so-called “Disney Renaissance”, but there’s a spunk in Groove’s step, a pizzaz in its razzamatazz, an electron-charged energy that marks it as the most beautifully blissful Disney film since, arguably, Beauty itself.

The third in a trio of wacky, effervescent Disney screwball comedies self-consciously modeled after the Looney Tunes and the Marx Brothers, The Emperor’s New Groove frankly makes its predecessors Aladdin and Hercules feel like dry runs or mere stepping stones. Directed by Mark Dindal with a spry, springy visual sensibility and written by David Reynolds with lithe, fleet wordplay ungilded by too much elephantine glamour, the story salvaged the Incan setting of the scrapped film Kingdom of the Sun but mutated the tone completely. What was salvaged? The protagonist is still heartless Emperor Kuzco (David Spade), himself mutated into a llama and exiled to the jungle by his crony Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and her crony Kronk (Patrick Warburton). There, Kuzco meets kindly peasant Pacha (John Goodman), who Kuzco plans to exile from his own home to make room for his royal summer getaway pool. Together, the two form an unlikely bond instigated by Kuzco’s need to return to his throne, Pacha’s unflagging niceness and Kuzco’s promise to build his summer home somewhere else.

Refashioned as a peppy, pugnacious buddy comedy, Groove is not penitent to the needs of classical glamorousness, instead infusing a punchy, modernist sensibility that nonetheless eschews the disagreeable, moribund habit – thick-on-the-ground around this time – of excessively of-the-moment cultural references to modern life. It’s groovy, but not overly hip, you might say, and all based in character. Spade is actually spectacular as a petulant, selfish heel turned hero, and Pacha bears the always homey, over-exaggerated tones of John Goodman. The real standouts, however, are Eartha Kitt’s devilishly bored, cat-inflected Yzma and, especially, Patrick Warburton’s impeccably loopy Kronk, a henchman of indeterminate intelligence who wonders aloud about the morality of his actions but isn’t quite confident enough to act against his boss.

As a work of design, though, The Emperor’s New Groove is much more clandestine than the typical, florid Disney affair from the money-all-over Renaissance, but the torturous production and the need to release the film on the quick actually infuses it with a giddy, agile, acrobatic sensibility. The design seems barbaric, but the clipped, askew style of the characters, all askew, pointed, harshly angled designs comingling and abetting the cackling, mad scientist humor, only aids in the film’s general attitude of disabusing itself of seriousness. With Disney’s production schedule on the fritz, the pop-art infused style (of flaring, abstract backgrounds and excessively-lined, modernist shapes) emerges as a carnivalesque parody of human physicality (the spindly, wiry Yzma, like a warped Cruella De Vil, and the muscular Kronk are like a parody of the lanky Kuzco and the pudgy Pacha). There’s even a run through abstract, shifting backgrounds when Kuzco, recently llamaed, is chased by a cabal of jungle panthers that suggests Ward Kimball’s divine “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom”, itself a project instigated by an animator tired of Disney’s congealing “serious”, realistically-designed Broadway excursions and happy to indulge in Looney Tunes mania for once.

The Emperor’s New Groove is an inconsequential motion picture, but it’s inconsequentiality spiced with vigor, inconsequential as a purpose, rather than a work like Pocahontas that exerts so much effort toward being consequential that it ends up a cloying obelisk encased in inconsequentiality it never wanted. Snide but never smug, The Emperor’s New Groove is still a fable, but one where the pomposity is excised, turned into a llama, thrown in a burlap sack, and sent off to the jungle never to be seen from again (even the wide angles are interspersed for maximum energy and comic counterpoise rather than grandiosity per-se). Enough to raise the dead, The Emperor’s New Groove is ultimately a little sidebar excursion into wondrous simplicity, to the betterment of wonder and simplicity. And sidebar excursions.

Score: 9/10

blackcauldron5The Black Cauldron

The much vaunted (before its release) 25th animated feature from the premiere animation company in the world, The Black Cauldron was Disney’s brick wall, and eventually the ashes from which it would rise again. The world into which The Black Cauldron was released was a graveyard for Disney, a company dwindling after nearly fifteen years of increasingly Xeroxed and moribund features intermittently dotting the landscape, released not like ceremonies to be cherished but vagrants to be buried by a company who let them slip into the wild in hopes of making any money at all to keep the franchise afloat on extremely rocky waters. All the world on its shoulders, The Black Cauldron – the splashiest, fanciest release yet by a company precariously throwing all of its eggs in one basket  – more or less had to save the company’s film division, and as we all know, it more or less didn’t. Until it did.

This wasn’t the first-time time Disney Animation’s fate had been staked on a single film (for one of the world’s premiere companies, Disney Animation sure knew how to dance right up to the toxic edge of bankruptcy every few years and nearly blow itself to smithereens). Indeed, barely scraping by was the de facto state of matter for Disney for the first fifty years of its existence, until roughly 1990. But it was the first time the company had struggled for success for a period of more than a few years at a time, and the only time the film had consciously pumped extra money into a production that really needed to pay off (unlike Dumbo, where the company’s sudden success story was made on the cheap). At least they had the money, derived almost exclusively from the wellspring that was Disney Land and its counterpart in Florida, but that flagellating film division was not helping anyway and was in immediate danger of being lacerated by its own lethargy and interminable production periods.

By sheer chance, it seems, the company did recalibrate itself almost immediately, infusing itself with new blood after the disastrous returns on The Black Cauldron inadvertently did save Disney’s animation wing by forcing it to open its eyes and pull itself out of the morass of commercial and artistic failure. So, with that, the film can stand on its own without the weight of being the final embankment guarding a company’s entrance into purgatory.

Although, at some level, viewing the film unadorned with expectation only illuminates the film’s failures on its own terms; adapted from a duo of books in a five novel series by Lloyd Alexander, the film has just about the hoariest old adventure structure imaginable in a decade filled to the brim with hoary old boys’ adventure pictures. Mostly following the travails of a boy pig farmer and his pig as they save a fantasy land from the vile, villainous, and kind of vague Horned King (John Hurt, the only actively good performance in the film), the film sees Disney’s attempt to appeal to the boys and raises it the laziest way of possibly doing so. An experiment of sorts, the end results (unlike say Alice in Wonderland or The Emperor’s New Groove, the other major cult films in the Disney Animated canon) don’t exactly justify why the experiment was worth undergoing in the first place.

That the narrative more or less wanders around in circles for 80 minutes isn’t exactly a let-down per-se, especially considering the famously troubled production with virtually no top-down supervision and the animation staff essentially replaced by a revolving, uninterrupted door of in-and-out newbies and wandering souls, so we ought to view it with a touch of civility. Frankly, it’s a miracle the film even exists with the voice acting intact, not that this miracle makes the watery misery of the voice acting any better. It does, certainly, shine a gilded light on the animation, not that the animation even needs context to be appreciated; if nothing else, as a triumph of the APT animation-cels-to-celluloid process pioneered for this production and the gloriously short-lived return of the wide-screen Cinerama format (elsewhere used for the only time in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty), The Black Cauldron is essential Disney on a purely technical level. Easily the most beautiful film from the company since Sleeping Beauty twenty six years before, it’s a sight for sore eyes after the stilted, jilted animation incompetence of their previous film The Fox and the Hound (to say nothing of the abject pits of Robin Hood).

Skeptical though it may be as a film, as a perceptual experience, The Black Cauldron is cushy, rhapsodic beauty. It’s even demented bliss whenever the Horned King’s domain arrives like a brazen bramble of thorny disfigurement and lost souls, one of the great movie locations of the ‘80s and a justification for the stunningly ominous sense of depth catalyzed by the enhanced budget. The humans fair less well, less because of technical achievements than because the animation (literally, the movement from frame to frame) doesn’t exactly escape the tumultuous production process unscathed or with its clarity intact (a scatterbrained, spastic broadness still hovers over the characters). And whatever characters do work, like the Horned King who is more than a triumph of design and thankfully doesn’t need to move much anyway, are undone by their ephemeral role in the film anyway (up until the final moments, the Horned King is nearly a non-entity as a threat despite the picked-at, macabre theatricality of his look).

Frankly, then, The Black Cauldron is more or a parlor trick than anything else, a deeply compromised motion picture salvaged only by the sumptuous, distinctly effortful nature of the mise-en-scene (honestly, much the same can be said about the much more critically and commercially favorable The Lion King). Even then though, it’s a technical achievement more than an artistic one, and every moment where the visual vocabulary approximates real grace is undone by another dry, mirthless scene of largely passive, inconsequential adventuring and diffuse characterization. The ingredients bubbling within Disney’s often forgotten, intermittently loved, and typically derided production are, fittingly, a mixture of the inessential, the beautiful, and the actively distasteful (I haven’t mentioned the comedic relief for a reason). Although it isn’t disdainful, and it doesn’t deserve to be misplaced in the dustbin of history, The Black Cauldron’s latent fandom is based more on overcorrecting its reputation as flagrant misfire than on any consistent genius on display in the film. Even when the visuals stimulate a beat or two, it never moves beyond striving for a rhythm, or a heart, that eludes it.

Score: 6/10

 

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