In 2000, Disney’s animated unlikely buddy comedy titled The Emperor’s New Groove became the 40th entry in the Disney animated feature films cannon. While it doesn’t evoke the same level of weighty emotion as Disney’s great classics like Beauty and the Beast or Snow White, Emperor’s New Groove is an undeniably charming, funny, and well-made film.
But it didn’t start out as just another animated buddy comedy from the House of the Mouse. It was actually aiming to be the next Lion King for most of its production. So how did we end up with the non-musical, slapstick romp that we all remember? What happened to that ambitious project?
In this list, we’ll explore intriguing details about 2 incarnations of a Disney film, one that only survives in unofficial bits and pieces and one that debuted in theaters as a finished piece. Here are 16 Things You Never Knew About The Emperor’s New Groove!
16. THE PRODUCTION WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED KINGDOM OF THE SUN
In 1994, The Lion King director Roger Allers began production of a classic Disney style musical epic set in the ancient Incan Empire called “Kingdom of the Sun”. The story was originally going to be about an Incan emperor who switches places with a commoner who shares a striking resemblance. Basically, it was to be an ancient Incan adaptation of Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper.
The Emperor meets this doppelganger and decides to switch places with him for funsies. Yzma, the royal sorceress, discovers the switch and turns the real emperor into a llama, while threatening to expose the peasant if he disobeys her.
By 1998, Disney execs were losing faith in the project, especially after the underwhelming box office hauls other dramatic sweeping musicals like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Allers later left the project and Mark Dindal become the sole director. By 2000, the film had been reworked and partially recast into the buddy comedy we know now as The Emperor’s New Groove.
15. THERE WAS A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE PRODUCTION OVERHAUL
Since Kingdom of the Sun was going to be a musical, Disney had hired Sting to compose and produce about 6 songs for the film. In keeping with the success of The Lion King soundtrack, which included songs by Elton John, Disney hoped Sting’s compositions would help boost Kingdom of the Sun’s success.
As part of his agreement to join the film and write for the soundtrack, Sting bargained for his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, to produce a documentary about Kingdom of the Sun’s production. As the production wore on and tensions grew between Disney and Allers, Styler’s documentary became one of the most candid accounts of this difficult transition that’s still viewable online today. The doc was eventually titled The Sweatbox. The title comes from the Disney Animation review studio in Burbank, California, which reportedly had no air conditioning at the time. Producers, directors, Sting himself, and even cast members who were dropped from the production can be seen in clips.
14. DELETED SCENES: “SNUFF OUT THE LIGHT” YZMA’S SONG
This buried gem of a Disney villain song can still be found online, leftover from the production’s “Kingdom of the Sun” days. Eartha Kitt had already made a career out of her distinctive voice and vocal style in music, movies, and TV shows, and her performance of “Snuff Out the Light” superbly demonstrates her fit for the character.
Evidently, Yzma’s jealousy and ambition for Kuzco’s position carried over between the two incarnations of the film. She sings about banishing the light from the world and ushering in a domain of demons and beasts that thrive in the darkness.
The song also gives us a bit more information of Yzma’s backstory. At least in the “Kingdom of the Sun” treatment, Yzma’s father was the royal mortician and had trained her to use magic to keep her youth and prolong her life. There’s no explicit mention of the backstory in the final film, but it would help explain where her magic comes from and why she hates Kuzco even more for enjoying power and not earning or taking advantage of it.
13. OWEN WILSON AND CARLA GUGINO WERE ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE IN THE CAST
Kingdom of the Sun originally had many more roles than Emperor’s New Groove, including several characters that were retooled and/or removed entirely. Pacha was originally a very lowly peasant, not even the head of a village, and he was going to start the film as a meek younger character. For this incarnation of the character, Disney had cast Owen Wilson, which seems like a good fit based on this character description.
As stated above, Yzma blackmails Pacha to do her bidding when he’s switched with the real Emperor. While he’s posing as the Emperor, Pacha meets the Emperor’s betrothed, a woman named Nina who was set to be voiced by Carla Gugino. The relationship between Pacha and Nina was supposed to be part of the more traditional royal Disney romance in the film. Obviously, the parts and the characters were reworked over the course of the production, and Pacha becomes an older, married family man, and the Emperor’s betrothed is reduced to a one-scene gag.
12. THE STORY WAS NOT BASED ON THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES BY HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN
Hans Christian Andersen’s works of children’s stories and fairy tales have inspired several of Disney’s feature films, most notably Frozen and The Little Mermaid. Some viewers may have been under the impression that The Emperor’s New Groove is another such film, but in fact, it is not. The similar phrasing and inferences of the two story’s titles are purely coincidental.
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers prepare a brand new set of robes for an Emperor and tell him that the clothes will be visible only to those smart, fitted, and dignified enough to wear them. The Emperor, totally assured in his own right to his station, put on the clothes and showed them off to whole crowds of his subjects. The only one in the crowd who can’t understand the pretense of propriety is a child, who shouts out that the Emperor was in fact walking around naked!
11. THE STORY IS ACTUALLY MORE SIMILAR TO KALIF STORCH BY WILHELM HAUFF
Wilhelm Hauff was a 19th century German poet and novelist who died tragically young at the tender age of 24 in 1827. Nevertheless, in 1826, he published his Märchen almanach auf das Jahr 1826 (Fairytale Almanac of 1826). The stories contained therein are still some of the most popular children’s fairytales in German speaking countries today. Among those tales is Kalif Storch (Caliph Stork), set in the “Orient”.
The story is about a Caliph and his Grand Vizier, who encounter a mysterious black powder and an inscribed incantation from a peddler. The powder is an incantation will turn them into whatever animals they choose, but if they laugh while transformed, they will forget the incantation necessary to turn them back into humans.
Of course, they forget. On their journey back to the palace, they encounter another human who has been transformed into a night owl — a princess, in fact. All three royals have to bargain with an evil sorcerer to regain their human forms.
10. KUSCO’S NAME IS DERIVED FROM THE NAME OF THE INCAN EMPIRE’S CAPITAL
The Incan Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America, stretching along the Andean mountain range for thousands of miles at its furthest extent in the 16th century. Sun worship was encouraged by the royal leadership, and their king was considered “the son of the sun.” This would explain why so much of the imagery around Kuzco’s garb and ornamentation in his palace is based on golden, sun-shaped half circles. It also explains the original treatment title, Kingdom of the Sun.
Kuzco’s name itself is based on the Capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco, which was located in modern-day Peru. Cuzco sat at the crossroads of the adjacent corners of all four of the major provinces of the Incan Empire.
Pacha’s name is also significant, since the word “pacha” means “Earth” in the Incan language family called Quechua. It make sense for the character, since he’s the one that ends up grounding Kuzco’s perspective and priorities by the end of the movie.
9. DIRECTOR MARK DINDAL HATED INCLUDING THAT WIZARD OF OZ REFERENCE
In the third act of the film, Kuzco and Pacha sneak back into the palace to find the potion that will transform Kuzco back into a human. Plenty of callbacks and visual humor punctuate the unwelcome intrusion. Pacha and Kuzco take a moment rummaging through the lab to find what they are looking for before they find the cabinet containing Yzma’s potions for transformations.
Pacha looks closely at some of the labels on the shelf for the potions. There are three in a row labeled with pictures of, “Lions”, “Tigers”, and “Bears”. The very next potion over is the one for humans, but the potion in missing. At the moment, Yzma interjects from off screen with an “Oh my.”
See what they did there? Well, according to producer Randy Fullmer and director Mark Dindal, they both hated including this joke. Then head of Disney Feature Animation Thomas Schumacher was the one who insisted on including it. Perhaps it is a bit contrived, especially for such low-hanging fruit.
8. PACHA’S WIFE CHICHA MAKES A CURIOUS DISNEY FIRST
Mothers frequently figure into Disney movies, although usually not in the most important or flattering ways. (Consider Bambi’s mother or the Evil Stepmother from Cinderella.) Chicha, on the other hand, is a much more impressive and realistic female character. Chicha appears throughout the movie instead of getting killed off in the first act. She has opinions and motives of her own, and is a wise, loving, and not at all evil, mother. Chicha and Pacha are in a functional loving relationship with 2 precocious children, and she gets to bring the laughs on her own while interacting with the other characters.
In addition to being a great character, Chicha is the first prenant female character to appear in a Disney animated feature film, at least according to the DVD commentary. To the film’s credit, Chicha’s pregnancy is handled pretty tastefully too. She’s not made to be delicate, it’s never implied that any outbursts come from her heightened hormonal state, and she still manages to be funny and capable.
7. BARBARA STREISAND WAS THE ORIGINAL CHOICE FOR THE VOICE OF YZMA
Barbara Streisand is one of the most well-known performers of the modern era. She’s cracked the top 10 charts in every decade of her 60+ year career, and is among the few artists ever to be awarded an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. On screen, Barbara Streisand became famous for her ingénue roles in movies like Funny Girl and A Star is Born, but her roles matured as her career progressed.
One realm of performance that Streisand hasn’t quite broken into is voice acting. It would have certainly gained a lot of attention for Kingdom of the Sun to cast her, which was once reportedly a near-reality. How exactly the role ended up going to Eartha Kitt is unknown. While Kitt more than owns the part, it’s still interesting to imagine how Yzma may have been brought to life with Streisand voicing her. How would her take on the elitist power-hungry advisor have looked? Would Disney have been more inclined to keep the movie as a musical with a household vocal talent like Streisand involved in the production?
6. THE SCENE WITH KUZCO IN KRONK’S BAG FEATURED A REFERENCE TO CITIZEN KANE
In this delightful little scene, we get to see Kronk doing his best to enjoy himself while tasked with disposing of Kuzco in llama form. He slips out into the streets with Kuzco stuffed in a bag on his back and starts humming and singing his own Mission Impossible-esque soundtrack.
Disney had Kronk’s voice actor (Patrick Warburton) sign all legal rights to the humming composition over to them. We don’t even get to hear it all that clearly, but Warburton presumably recorded more than ever appeared in the film. Perhaps Disney thought it was that charming and catchy.
The scene also includes a Citizen Kane reference, when Kronk has second thoughts about sending Kuzco falling over the waterfall to his death. The camera then draws out dramatically to a monkey eating a bug. There’s a shot in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane that also has a clouded building far in the background with monkeys snacking on bugs in the foreground.
5. BUCKY THE SQUIRREL WAS PLAYED BY ACCLAIMED VOICE ACTOR BOB BERGEN
When Kuzco gets lost in the jungle, he becomes so distraught that he hits a squirrel on the head with an acorn, before he falls into a den of sleeping jaguars. The squirrel returns for vengeance. Out of nowhere, he inflates and bends a balloon llama and pops it with a cactus nettle. Kronk and Yzma find the squirrel themselves and ask for directions when they’re searching for Kuzco to finish him off for good. The squirrel’s lines are heavily-inflected gibberish, but they were voiced by none other than Bob Bergen.
Bergen has been doing voice work in TV, movies, and video games since 1978. He’s voiced characters in Space Jam, Gremlins, Spirited Away, Sabrina: The Animated Series, the 1996 Spider-Man TV series, and Star Wars: the Clone Wars. He was also the voice of Luke Skywalker for pretty much every Star Wars video game Lucas Arts made between Shadows of the Empire (1996), and Battlefront II (2005). He’s provided voice work for numerous Disney films as well, including A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., WALL-E, Up, Wreck it Ralph and Tangled.
4. ALL THE LLAMA EASTER EGGS
Kuzco is far from the only Llama that appears in the movie, even setting aside the scene where he tries to make nice with a herd of real llamas and gags when he tries to eat grass. Pacha is seen accompanied by a llama on his journey to and from Kuzco’s palace in the capital city. When he gets back to his village, he mentions in an aside that his llama’s name is Misty. Misty is also the name of the llama in the 1952 children’s book, Secret of the Andes.
There are more subtle visual llama motifs in the film as well. In the scene where Yzma and Kronk try to poison Kuzco, Kronks’ clumsiness gets the “poison” mixed up around all their drinks. During the toast, Yzma discretely dumps her drink in a potted cactus conveniently next to her. If you look closely, after Kuzco starts transforming, the shot cuts back to the stunned Yzma to show the potted cactus has transformed into the shape of a llama. In a similar little detail, the salt shakers at the diner Kuzco and Pacha stop at are shaped like llamas as well.
3. DELETED SCENES: SOLDIERS DESTROY CARDBOARD PACHA’S VILLAGE
There’s a deleted scene meant to follow Kuzco telling Pacha that he’s going to build his summer home right on his village’s hill top. Pacha has gotten back to the street level. He wanders into what appears to be a cardboard cutout model of his village before a group of soldiers marching to the following chant appears:
“Crush all buildings, make some space! Kuzco World will take its place! Burn the Houses, feel the heat! Breaking stuff is really neat!”
Pacha runs for cover and watches in horror as the soldiers practice decimating his village. The scene is pretty unsettling compared to the rest of the movie, especially since the audience could easily imagine frightened villagers fleeing for their lives in this attack. The scene is also a bit redundant, since Pacha already knew about Kuzco’s plans to callously destroy his village. Kuzco gleefully destroying the miniature village was disheartening enough without being genuinely scary.
2. STING GOT DISNEY TO REWRITE THE ENDING
Even when Disney transitioned from Kingdom of the Sun to The Emperor’s New Groove, certain major story changes were still in store for the production. Towards the end of the production, the near-final draft of the ending had Kuzco building his summer home amusement park on a hill close to Pacha’s village by tearing down a rain forest. He would have invited Pacha’s family over to visit though.
Sting wasn’t having any of that noise. According to an interview with the New Musical Express in 2000, Sting wrote a letter to Disney, saying, “You do this, I’m resigning because this is exactly the opposite of what I stand for. I’ve spent 20 years trying to defend the rights of indigenous people and you’re just marching over them to build a theme park. I will not be party to this.”
1. THERE WAS A DIRECT TO VIDEO SEQUEL AND A TV SHOW
After its long and tumultuous production, The Emperor’s New Groove was a solid success and is now widely regarded as one of the best films of the post-renaissance Disney era. So of course it got a direct-to-video sequel in 2005 that focused on the standout comic relief character, Kronk. Patrick Warburton, Eartha Kit, David Spade and John Goodman all returned to reprise their voice roles. The story revolved around Kronk struggling for his dad’s approval of his cooking aspirations, though it was poorly received by critics and fans alike. It currently sports a resounding 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The very next year, the Disney Channel premiered an animated TV series based on the films called The Emperor’s New School. The show follows Kuzco after the events of the first movie as he tries to complete his reeducation to return to the throne. Yzma, of course, does her best to thwart Kuzco from passing his classes. John Goodman, Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton voiced their same characters again over the course of the show, though Kuzco was voiced by J. P. Manoux instead of David Spade.
Are there any other factoids you’ve found about The Emperor’s New Groove? Share them in the comments!