Incan emperor Kuzco is a maniac despot who believes that life is all about “me” and finds ways to alienate people without even trying. In the first five minutes of the film, he has ordered an elderly cripple to be thrown from the tower of his palace for interfering with his “groove”; he has fired his nefarious advisor for attempting to usurp his power by sitting on his thrown; he has ignored the request of a village leader and is determined to displace a whole village so that he can build his summer home there. But in Walt Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove (releasing on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with Kronk’s New Groove), he’s about to get an Old Testament comeuppance that the prophet Daniel could’ve seen coming.
After Kuzco (David Spade) fires his chief advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt), she plots with her doltish henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton) to kill him but ends up transforming him into a llama. The scales seem stacked against Kuzco, but he ends up in the care of the peasant leader Pacha (John Goodman), whose heart is bigger than anyone else’s. Pacha’s family, his pregnant wife and his two bouncing children, provide nurture and care that drive him to be better than he’d be otherwise; the stark contrast in their backgrounds shows the differences between their personalities and motivations as well.
Pacha presses forward with Kuzco’s desire to get back to the palace under the assumption that as “my father said, there’s good in everyone,” even as Kuzco seems to undermine that hope at every turn. While Spade’s tone and delivery provide many of the laughs, it’s the significant goodness of Pacha that drives the flow of the story. Seriously, given Kuzco, Kronk, and Yzma, Pacha not only shines as a “good” person, but as a Christian figure of virtue, willing to keep helping the emperor even when there’s no reason to do so other than that it’s the right thing to do. It flies in the face of everything Kuzco understands, that someone would act selflessly and humbly, but over time, it wears away at his own misguided arrogance. But this tale, while a parable in nature, has Old Testament foundations.
In Daniel 4 of the Hebrew Scriptures, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that the prophet Daniel interprets this way: “‘You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes. The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue‘” (vs. 25-27). Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t repent, but rather spouts off about how his whole empire is the result of his own glory and majesty, and immediately, it says, “He was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird” (verse 33).
After wandering around like an ox for awhile, Nebuchadnezzar prays, God’s “dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (verses 34-35). His power is restored, his kingdom is returned to him, and in his own words, the extent of his power is even greater than ever. The lessons that Kuzco learns, that his kingdom is not his alone, are the ones Nebuchadnezzar learned thousands of years ago, are what brings home the message about pride and humility that deliver The Emperor’s New Groove.
Entertaining, funny, and VERY pointed, The Emperor’s New Groove isn’t just a movie, or a sweet story of budding friendship, but a powerful parable about the way we see the world we live in, the compassion we have for others, and the recognition that we can’t make it through this world on our own.