It's no secret that practically since the beginning of its long and gloried history, the Disney studio has been turning out films that appeal to adults as well as kids. Yes, they've primarily been aimed at the much younger market, but there's most always been a shrewdly placed something to appreciate for the parents who have been saddled with bringing the youngsters.
There's no doubt that back in 1940, Fantasia had much more of an adult audience than a kiddy one. And in recent years, animated films like Aladdin and Hercules -- although certainly worthy of all the young laughs they got due to cuteness and funny-looking characters -- got their fair share of grown-up laughs because of hip references and sly side remarks that went soaring way above the kids' heads.
The studio now takes another step in that direction with The Emperor's New Groove, a film that many will agree is the kind of entertainment that kids will get a charge out of, that parents will have fun watching with their offspring, and that anyone, from college-age to seniors, will have just as much fun with at evening performances when there are no kids in the audience.
The story of an egocentric teenage emperor in some long-ago South American country who, instead of being killed in an overthrow attempt, is accidentally turned -- via magic potion -- into a llama, is an offbeat one for sure. Unlike in every other Disney film that comes to mind, the hero of this one -- the self-centered Kuzco (voice of David Spade) -- is a jerk. He's not your standard everyday bad guy, but he's certainly thoughtless, unaware of or uncaring about anyone else's concerns. In this case, it's the concerns of a whole village, which he intends to destroy in order to build a summer home for himself. When strapping Pacha (voice of John Goodman), loving husband and father -- and resident of that small village -- finds out about the plans, he becomes, in turn, angry, then forlorn, knowing there's nothing he can do about it.
But some goings-on at empire central change all of that soon enough. Kuzco's adviser Yzma (voice of Eartha Kitt) is as evil as they come. It's she that comes up with the idea of the coup that would leave her in charge. So, with the aid of her "trusty" henchman, the addle-brained, and like Kuzco, strapping, Kronk (voice of Patrick Warburton, who played Puddy on Seinfeld), she sets out to knock the nasty emperor off. Of course it's Kronk who mixes up the vials, which leads to their leader sprouting hooves, a long neck, lower buck teeth and an inordinate amount of hair.
The story turns into one of Kuzco, still not a nice guy, being llama-napped, dumped off far from home and forced into starting up a relationship with nice-guy Pacha who -- because he is such a nice guy -- decides to help Kuzco get back home and hopefully be turned back into a human. Problems get in the way, in the shape of scary animals in the woods, the rugged terrain and the fact that Yzma and Kronk are on the way to finish their job.
But none of what's been stated here so far is what will be attracting the adult audience. Practically everything else about the film, though, is. The filmmakers have infused this too-short feature (about 75 minutes) with a wild slapstick sensibility and a raucous humor that hearkens back to the Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng eras of Warner Bros. cartoons, to a time when animators were creating short films that made them laugh. So the sight gags here are often either too subtle or too quick to register with viewers who aren't mature enough to get them. And who, among anyone not old enough to vote (for whatever that's worth), is going to get a reference to the original version of The Fly ("Help me!!") or a nod to The Wizard of Oz (lions, tigers, bears)?
And what kid is going to marvel at the flimsy outfit the hideous Yzma is wearing or possibly laugh out loud when one of the characters gets fed up with interventions by the film's narrator?
Yet there's plenty for all ages to laugh about, even after the script goes to the well a couple too many times to prove just how thoughtless Kuzco is. By the time the big ending comes around -- a happy one, natch -- there's been gag after gag, delivered at dizzying speed within non-stop action, accompanied by a big, bright color palette, and an entertaining score that never gets in the way of the story. Just remember that it's perfectly okay to go, even if there are no kids with you.