When you look back at the list of theatrically released Disney animated features, The Emperor’s New Groove sticks out like a sore thumb. Not for any unfavorable reasons, but rather it’s much zanier and farcical than the usual output coming out of Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie as is, but its heightened ridiculousness belies an original idea that was more in line with Disney’s epic and grandiose productions like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast instead of the screwball comedy that made its way to the big screen.
Although the movie was released in 2000, its inception began six years prior. Director Roger Allers was hot off the unprecedented success of The Lion King and pitched the then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, a similarly majestic tale that would take place during the height of the Incan civilization called Kingdom of the Sun.
The story was a riff on Mark Twain’s classic novel The Prince and the Pauper; a self-centered emperor named Manco switches places with a lowly peasant in order to spice up his boring life. Meanwhile, the emperor’s wicked advisor Yzma (a sorceress that conjures up comparisons to Jafar from Aladdin) longs to snuff out the sun and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. When Yzma discovers the switcheroo that Manco has performed, she turns the emperor into a llama, casts him out of the kingdom, and threatens to reveal the imposter’s identity unless he obeys her commands. Manco eventually befriends a female llama-herder named Mata, and the two set off to stop Yzma’s evil plans.
Allers delved deep into Incan mythology and culture, taking the production crew down to Machu Picchu in order to absorb as much of the landscape and aesthetic as possible. He also enlisted singer-songwriter Sting to write and perform a number of songs for the film, much like he had with Tim Rice and Elton John for The Lion King.
He also wanted the diabolical Yzma to be a truly imposing and formidable foe, tying her allegiance directly to the Incan god of death Supay. This is a far cry from the wackier incarnation of the character that ended up in the film, and that’s most telling in the song that was cut from the finished film. Yes, a Disney villain song (always a highlight of their animated features) written by Sting and sung by the sultry Eartha Kitt was taken out of the film. Thankfully, it still remains on the film’s official soundtrack:
That was far from the only change the film underwent. Due to other Disney epics of the time like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame underperforming, executives felt the movie needed to scale itself back and inject more comedy into the story. After a lengthy back and forth between the studio and the denial of an extension on his proposed version, Allers left the production and Mark Dindal — fresh off the similarly mishandled Cats Don’t Dance — took over as director.
The entire plot was retooled in order to focus on more of a buddy movie between the selfish emperor (now renamed Kuzco) and an older llama-herder character named Pacha. The entire Incan mythology plot and the connections to The Prince and the Pauper were completely dropped. Sting’s contributing songs (which were all created specifically for the original storyline and characters) were excised until only two remained in the film. Yzma’s supervising animator, Andreas Deja (animator of such classic Disney villains as Jafar and Scar), left the project after seeing that Yzma had become a much sillier antagonist and had even acquired a bumbling sidekick named Kronk.
Re-titling the film The Emperors New Groove (a much more telling title once the film’s backstory is known), the movie was released in December of 2000 and bore little similarity to the sweeping epic it started as. Though The Emperor’s New Groove is a goofy slice of madcap fun, it’s hard not to imagine what Kingdom of the Sun could have been. Would it have rivaled such modern classics like The Lion King? Sadly, we’ll never know.