The film follows a teenage emperor named Kuzco who is transformed into a llama by his ex-advisor and henchwoman, Yzma. In order for the emperor to change back into a human, he trusts a village leader named Pacha who escorts him back to the palace. It was altered significantly over its six years of development and production.
Kuzco, a young selfish Inca emperor, rejects the appearances of potential brides and throws an elderly man out the window for "throwing off his groove." After Kuzco fires his conniving advisor, Yzma, for abusing her power, she comes up with a scheme to take the throne with the help of Kronk, her dim-witted but jovial henchman. Later, Kuzco meets with Pacha, a kind peasant and village leader, and tells him that he plans to demolish his hilltop family home to build himself a lavish summer home called "Kuzcotopia". Pacha protests, but is dismissed.
Yzma and Kronk make a plan to get rid of Kuzco by tricking him into drinking poison at dinner, but end up giving him the wrong potion that instead transforms him into a llama. After knocking Kuzco unconscious, Yzma orders Kronk to dispose of him and hide the body, but Kronk has a stroke of conscience and saves him. He accidentally drops him on the back of Pacha's cart as he's leaving the city. Pacha returns home, but does not tell his family about Kuzco's decision. After awakening from the bag on the cart, scaring Pacha, Kuzco blames Pacha for his transformation and orders him to take him back to the palace. Pacha uses this leverage to attempt to make Kuzco promise not to demolish the village. Kuzco haughtily sets off into the jungle alone, only to be chased by jaguars. After Pacha rescues Kuzco and they survive a waterfall, Kuzco agrees to spare the village, and Pacha agrees to help Kuzco return to the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Yzma takes the throne, eulogizing Kuzco, but Kronk reveals that he had lost Kuzco rather than killing him. The two set off to find him. Kuzco and Pacha fail to return to the palace, when they fall through a bridge into a chasm full of alligators. They manage to use teamwork to climb back up the chasm, avoiding the alligators, and Kuzco manages to save Pacha's life once, proving Pacha's point that Kuzco has a good conscience. Though Kuzco admits that he wasn't going to respect their promise, Pacha continues to help Kuzco home as according to his promise. They stop at a jungle restaurant at the same time Kronk and Yzma do. Neither party realizes the other is there, until Pacha overhears Yzma and Kronk discussing their plot. Kuzco refuses to believe Pacha's warning and leaves him, but overhears Kronk and Yzma shortly after proving Pacha right. Kuzco realizes that the kingdom does not even miss him and begins to repent his way of life. He searches for Pacha and eventually finds him and attempts to apologize. Pacha quickly forgives him. Meanwhile, Kronk remembers recognizing Pacha and realizes that Kuzco is likely with him.
The pair rush back to Pacha's house for supplies, only to find that Kronk and Yzma are visiting Pacha's family, posing as distant relatives. Pacha enlists the help of his family to stall Yzma and Kronk, as they get a head start. The race to the palace seems to end with Yzma and Kronk falling off a cliff, but they still inexplicably reach the palace first. Yzma orders Kronk to kill them both, but Kronk cannot bring himself to commit murder, leading Yzma to insult and reprimand Kronk and resign to killing them herself. Yzma summons the guards (who do not recognize Kuzco), while Pacha and Kuzco escape with all the potions in hopes of turning Kuzco back to a human. After several guards are transformed into animals while testing potions and Yzma is transformed into a kitten, one vial remains as the trio fight over it on the outer face of the palace. Pacha and Kuzco utilize the same teamwork as they did in the chasm, and Kuzco even actively chooses to save Pacha's life over retrieving the vial in one instance. Yzma manages to get the vial, but is then inadvertently defeated by Kronk, leaving the vial for Kuzco.
Now human again and a more selfless ruler, Kuzco decides to build his summer home elsewhere, and Pacha suggests a neighboring hilltop. In the end, Kuzco is shown living next door to Pacha's in a modest cabin, sharing a swimming pool with Pacha and his family. Yzma, still a kitten, grudgingly joins Kronk's Junior Chipmunk troop.David Spade as Emperor Kuzco, the spoiled 18-year-old emperor of the Inca Empire. He initially is narcissistic, arrogant and cruel, and pays no heed to the needs of others. However, after being transformed into a llama and bonding with Pacha, he becomes a better person.
John Goodman as Pacha, a kind, caring village leader who apparently foils Kuzco. Despite his ego, Pacha befriends and trusts Kuzco, and believes that Kuzco is capable of being a better person.
Eartha Kitt as Yzma, Kuzco's ex-advisor who claims that she "practically raised [Kuzco]". Her appearance is described as "scary beyond all reason" and "living proof that dinosaurs once roamed the earth." She is also incredibly vain, arrogant, manipulative, diabolical, and self-serving.
Patrick Warburton as Kronk, Yzma's dimwitted and muscular henchman. Despite working for her, he is very kind and good-natured. Kronk is a talented chef and has the ability to communicate with squirrels. His moral dilemmas manifest themselves in the form of an angel and devil that appear on his shoulders.
Wendie Malick as Chicha, Pacha's caring pregnant wife. She gives birth to her third child at the film's ending.
Kellyann Kelso and Eli Russell Linnetz as Chaca and Tipo, Pacha and Chicha's two young, rambunctious children.
Bob Bergen as Bucky the Squirrel, Kronk's companion who has an unpleasant encounter with Kuzco and is sickend by Yzma for her coldness.
Tom Jones as the Theme Song Guy, Kuzco's personal theme song conductor.
Patti Deutsch as Matta, a waitress at Mudka's Meat Hut.
John Fiedler as Rudy, a kindly old man who meets and befriends Kuzco.
Joe Whyte as the Royal Recordkeeper, a worrying official in charge of affairs on Kuzcos's palace.
The idea of Kingdom of the Sun was conceived by Roger Allers and Matthew Jacobs, and development on the project began in 1994. Upon pitching the project to then-Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner, Allers recalled Eisner saying "it has all of the elements of a classic Disney film," and because of his directorial success on The Lion King that same year, Eisner allowed Allers to have free rein with both the casting and the storyline. By January 1995, Variety reported that Allers was working on "an Inca-themed original story".
In 1996, the production crew traveled to Machu Picchu in Peru, to study Inca artifacts and architecture and the landscape this empire was created in.
Kingdom of the Sun was to have been a tale of a greedy, selfish emperor (voiced by David Spade) who finds a peasant (voiced by Owen Wilson) who looks just like him; the emperor swaps places with the peasant to escape his boring life and have fun, much as in author Mark Twain's archetypal novel The Prince and the Pauper. However, the evil witch Yzma has plans to summon the evil god Supai and destroy the sun so that she may retain her youth forever (the sun gives her wrinkles, so she surmises that living in a world of darkness would prevent her from wrinkling). Discovering the switch between the prince and the peasant, Yzma turns the real emperor into a llama and threatens to reveal the pauper's identity unless he obeys her. The emperor-llama learns humility in his new form, and even comes to love a female llama-herder named Mata (voiced by Laura Prepon). Together, the girl and the llama set out to undo the witch's plans. The book Reel Views 2 says the film would have been a "romantic comedy musical in the 'traditional' Disney style".
Following the underwhelming box office performances of Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, studio executives felt the project was growing too ambitious and serious for audiences following test screenings, and needed more comedy. In early 1997, producer Randy Fullmer contacted Mark Dindal, who had just wrapped up work on Cats Don't Dance, and offered him to be co-director on Kingdom of the Sun. Meanwhile, Allers personally called Sting, in the wake of Elton John's success with The Lion King's soundtrack, to compose several songs for the film. He agreed, but on the condition that his filmmaker wife Trudie Styler could "document the process of the production". This film, which was eventually entitled The Sweatbox, was made by Xingu Films (their own production company). Along with collaborator David Hartley, Sting composed eight songs inextricably linked with the original plot and characters.
In summer 1997, it was announced that Roger Allers and Mark Dindal would serve as the film's directors and Randy Fullmer as producer. David Spade and Eartha Kitt had been confirmed to voice the emperor, Manco, and the villainess, while Carla Gugino was in talks for a role. Harvey Fierstein was also cast as Hucua, Yzma's sidekick.
By the summer of 1998, it was apparent that Kingdom of the Sun was not far along enough in production to be released in the summer of 2000 as planned. At this time, one of the Disney executives reportedly walked into Randy Fullmer's office and, placing his thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart, stated "your film is this close to being shut down." Fullmer approached Allers, and informed him of the need to finish the film on time for its summer 2000 release as crucial promotional deals with McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and other companies were already established and depended upon meeting that release date. Allers acknowledged that the production was falling behind, but was confident that, with an extension of between six months to a year, he could complete the film. When Fullmer denied Allers's request for an extension, the director decided to leave the project. On September 23, 1998, the project was dead with production costs amounting towards $25–30 million and twenty-five percent of the film animated.
Upset that Allers left the project, Michael Eisner reportedly gave Fullmer two weeks to salvage the film or production would be shut down. Fullmer and Dindal halted production for six months to retool the project retitling it to Kingdom in the Sun, making it the first Disney animated feature to have an extensive overhaul since Pinocchio. Meanwhile, following Eric Goldberg's pitch for the Rhapsody in Blue segment for Fantasia 2000, the animators were reassigned to work on the segment. In the interim, Chris Williams, who was a storyboard artist during Kingdom of the Sun, came up with the idea of making Pacha an older character as opposed to the teenager that he was in the original story. Following up on the new idea, former late-night comedy writer David Reynolds stated, "I pitched a simple comedy that's basically a buddy road picture with two guys being chased in the style of a Chuck Jones 'toon, but faster paced. Disney said, 'Give it a shot.'" One of the new additions to the revised story was the scene-stealing character of Yzma's sidekick Kronk. Meanwhile, the name Manco was changed to Kuzco following Fullmer's discovery of the Japanese slang term omanco, which translates to vagina. Due in part of the production shutdown, Sting began to develop schedule conflicts with his songwriting duties interfering with his work on his next album he was planning to record in Italy. "I write the music, and then they're supposed to animate it, but there are constantly changes being made. It's constantly in turnaround," the singer/songwriter admitted, but "I'm enjoying it." Because of the shutdown, the computer-animated film Dinosaur assumed the summer 2000 release date originally scheduled for Kingdom.
Andreas Deja declined to return to the film observing his more serious version of Yzma was incompatible with the wackier, comedic tone of the film, and moved to Orlando, Florida, to work on Lilo & Stitch. Animator Dale Baer would replace Deja as the supervising animator for Yzma. Fulmer would inform Sting by telephone that his songs, related to specific scenes and characters that were now gone, had to be dropped. Bitter about the removal of his songs, the pop musician commented that "At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance." Disney eventually agreed to allow three of the six deleted songs as bonus tracks on the soundtrack album such as Yzma's villain song titled "Snuff Out the Light", the love song titled "One Day She'll Love Me", and a dance number called "Walk the Llama Llama". The plot elements such as the romance between the llama herder Pacha and Manco's betrothed Nina, the sun-capturing villain scheme, similarities to The Prince and the Pauper stories, and Inca mythology were dropped. The character of Hucua was also dropped from the story, though he would make a cameo appearance as the candle holder during the dinner scene in the finished film. Kuzco – who was a supporting character in the original story – eventually became the protagonist.
By summer 1999, cast members Owen Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, and Trudie Styler were dropped from the film. Eartha Kitt and David Spade remained in the cast, Dindal commented, "[a]nd then John Goodman and Patrick Warburton [who played Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on the Seinfeld series] came aboard." After Sting's songs for Kingdom of the Sun were dropped from the new storyline, Sting remained on the project, though he was told by the studio that "All we want is a beginning and an end song." The song, "Perfect World", was approached "to open the movie with a big, fun number that established the power of Kuzco and showed how he controlled the world", according to Feature Animation president Thomas Schumacher. The filmmakers had asked Sting to perform the song for the film, though Sting declined telling them that he was too old to sing it and that they should find someone younger and hipper. They instead went with Tom Jones, who is eleven years older than Sting.
In February 2000, the new film was announced as The Emperor's New Groove with its new story centering on a spoiled Inca Emperor – voiced by David Spade – who through various twists and falls ends up learning the meaning of true happiness from a poor peasant, played by John Goodman. The release date was scheduled for December 2000. Despite the phrasing of the title, the film bears no relation to Hans Christian Andersen's classic Danish fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" (although both stories involve an emperor being tricked). However, Eisner worried that the new story was too close in tone to Disney's 1997 film Hercules, which had performed decently yet below expectations at the American box office. Dindal and Fullmer assured him that The Emperor's New Groove, as the film was now called, would have a much smaller cast, making it easier to involve audiences. Towards the end of production, the film's ending originally had Kuzco building his Kuzcotopia amusement park on another hill by destroying a rainforest near Pacha's home, and inviting Pacha and his family to visit. Horrified at the ending, Sting commented that "I wrote them a letter and said, '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." The ending was rewritten so that Kuzco constructs a shack similar to Pacha's and spends his vacation among the villagers.
During production on Kingdom of the Sun, Andreas Deja was the initial supervising animator of Yzma, and incorporated supermodeling poses published in magazines in order to capture Yzma's sultry, seductive persona. Nik Ranieri was originally slated as the supervising animator for Yzma's rocky sidekick, Hucua. During the research trip to Peru in 1996, Ranieri acknowledged that "I was researching for a character that looked like a rock so I was stuck drawing rocks for the whole trip. Then when we got back they piled it into this story about ancient Incas." Mark Pudleiner was to be the supervising animator of Kuzco's proposed maiden, Nina. In early 1997, David Pruiksma came on board to animate the llama, Snowball. According to Pruiksma, Snowball was "a silly, vain and egotistical character, rather the dumb blond of the llama set. I really enjoyed developing the character and doing some early test animation on her as well. Before I left the film (and it was ultimately shelved), I created model sheets for not only Snowball, but for the rest of the herd of seven other llamas and for Kuzco as a Llama." When the film was placed on production shutdown, Pruiksma transferred to work on Atlantis: The Lost Empire being developed concurrently and ultimately the llama characters were dropped from the storyline.
Following the production overhaul and the studio's attempts for more cost-efficient animated features, Mark Dindal urged for "a simpler approach that emphasized the characters rather than overwhelming special effects or cinematic techniques". Because of the subsequent departure of Deja, animator Dale Baer inherited the character of Yzma. Using Eartha Kitt's gestures during recording sessions, Baer commented that "She has a natural voice for animation and really got into the role. She would gesture wildly and it was fun just to watch her. She would come into each session almost serious and very professional and suddenly she would go wild and break up laughing." Ranieri was later asked to serve as the supervising animator of Kuzco (as a human and a llama), though he would admit being reluctant at first until he discovered that Kuzco "had a side to him, there was a lot of comedy potential and as a character he went through an arc". Pudleiner was also reassigned to work as an animator of the human version of Kuzco. In addition to drawing inspiration from David Spade during recording sessions, the Kuzco animation team studied llamas at the zoo, visited a llama farm, watched nature documentaries, and even observed the animals up close when they came for a visit to the studio. For the rewritten version of Pacha, animator Bruce W. Smith observed that "Pacha is probably the most human of all the characters," and further added that he "has more human mannerisms and realistic traits, which serve as a contrast to the cartoony llama he hangs out with. He is the earthy guy who brings everything back into focus. Being a big fellow about six-foot-five and weighing about 250 pounds we had to work hard to give him a sense of weight and believability in his movement."
Actual animation began in 1999, involving 400 artists and 300 technicians and production personnel. Outside of the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio building in Burbank, California, animators located at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida and Disney Animation France assisted in the production of The Emperor's New Groove. During the last eighteen months of production, a 120-crew of clean-up artists would take an animation cel drawing from the animation department, and place a new piece of paper over the existing image in order to draw a cleaner, more refined image. "We're basically the final designers," said clean-up supervisor Vera Pacheco, whose crew worked on more than 200,000 drawings for "Groove".
After the release date had shifted to winter 2000, similarities were noted between the film and DreamWorks Animation's The Road to El Dorado. Marc Lument, a visual development artist on El Dorado, claimed "It really was a race, and Katzenberg wanted ours out before theirs." Lument also added that, "We didn't know exactly what they were doing, but we had the impression it was going to be very similar. Whoever came out second would face the impression that they copied the other." Fullmer and Dindal denied the similarities with the latter commenting "This version [The Emperor's New Groove] was well in the works when that movie came out," and further added "Early on, when our movie got to be very comic, all of us felt that you can't be making this farce about a specific group of people unless we are going to poke fun at ourselves. This didn't seem to be a proper choice about Incas or any group of people. It was more of a fable."
The marketing campaign for The Emperor's New Groove was relatively restrained as Disney opted to heavily promote the release of 102 Dalmatians, which was released during Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, the film was accompanied with six launcher toys of Kuzco, Kuzco as a llama, Pacha, Yzma, Yzma as a cat, and Kronk accompanied with Happy Meals at McDonald's in North America. The European, Asian and Australian toys from 2001 were different from the North American set. Stuffed animals were also made and sold in places like The Disney Store.
The standard VHS and DVD was released May 1, 2001, as well as a "2-Disc Collector's Edition" that included bonus features such as Sting's music video of "My Funny Friend and Me", a Rascal Flatts music video of "Walk the Llama Llama" from the soundtrack, audio commentary with the filmmakers, a multi-skill level Set Top Game with voice talent from the movie, and a deleted scene among other features. Unlike its theatrical box office performance, the film performed better on home video, becoming the top-selling home video release of 2001. In September 2001, it was reported that 6 million VHS units were sold amounting towards $89 million in revenue. On DVD, it was also reported it had sold twice as many sales. The overall revenue averaged toward $125 million according to Adams Media Research.
Disney re-released a single-disc special edition called "The New Groove Edition" on October 18, 2005. Disney digitally remastered and released The Emperor's New Groove on Blu-ray on June 11, 2013 bundled in a two-movie collection combo pack with its direct-to-video sequel Kronk's New Groove. On its first weekend, it sold 14,000 Blu-ray units grossing $282,000.
On its opening weekend, The Emperor's New Groove premiered at fourth place grossing about $10 million behind strong competitions such as What Women Want, Dude, Where's My Car?, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Overall, the film grossed $89,302,687 at the U.S. box office, and an additional $80,025,000 worldwide; totals lower than those for most of the Disney Feature Animation productions released in the 1990s.
Because of its pre-Columbian setting and Latin American flavor, Disney spent $250,000 in its marketing campaign towards the Latino market releasing dual English and Spanish-language theatrical prints in sixteen multiplexes across heavily populated Latino areas in Los Angeles, California in contrast to releasing dubbed or subtitled theatrical prints of their previous animated features in foreign markets. By January 2001, following nineteen days into its theatrical general release, the Spanish-dubbed prints were pulled from multiplexes as Latino Americans opted to watch the English-language prints with its grossing averaging $571,000 in comparison to $96,000 for the former.
On Rotten Tomatoes, it receives an 85% "Certified Fresh" approval rating based on 128 reviews with an average of 7.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads: "The Emperor's New Groove isn't the most ambitious animated film, but its brisk pace, fresh characters, and big laughs make for a great time for the whole family." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 70 out of 100 based on 28 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Many critics and audiences generally consider the film to be one of the better films of Disney's post-Renaissance era and also one of the most comedic.
Writing for Variety, Robert Koehler commented the film "may not match the groovy business of many of the studio's other kidpix, but it will be remembered as the film that established a new attitude in the halls of Disney's animation unit". Roger Ebert, writing his review for Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film 3 (out of 4) stars distinguishing the film as "a goofy slapstick cartoon, with the attention span of Donald Duck" that is separate from what's known as animated features. Ebert would later add that "it doesn't have the technical polish of a film like Tarzan, but is a reminder that the classic cartoon look is a beloved style of its own." Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum graded the film a B+, describing it as a "hip, funny, mostly nonmusical, decidedly non-epic family picture, which turns out to be less of a hero's journey than a meeting of sitcom minds".
Published in The Austin Chronicle, Marc Savlov gave the film 2/5 stars noting the film "suffers from a persistent case of narrative backsliding that only serves to make older members of the audience long for the days of the dwarves, beauties, and poisoned apples of Disney-yore, and younger ones squirm in their seats". Savlov continued to express his displeasure in the animation in comparison to the previous year's Tarzan writing it "is also a minor letdown, with none of the ecstatic visual tour de force." Movie reviewer Bob Strauss acknowledged the film is "funny, frantic and colorful enough to keep the small fry diverted for its short but strained 78 minutes", though except for "some nice voice work, a few impressive scale gags and interesting, Inca-inspired design elements, there is very little here for the rest of the family to latch onto". Strauss would target the massive story overhaul during production as the main problem.
The Sweatbox is a documentary that chronicled the tumultuous collaboration of Sting and David Hartley with the Disney studios to compose six songs for Kingdom of the Sun (the film's working title). The documentary featured interviews from directors Roger Allers and Mark Dindal, producer Randy Fullmer, Sting (whose wife created the documentary), Disney story artists, and the voice cast being dismayed by the new direction. Disney was not believed to be opposing Trudie Styler's documentary with Disney animation executive Thomas Schumacher, who had seen footage, commenting that "I think it's going to be great!"
The film premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, but has gone virtually unseen by the public ever since. Disney owns the rights, but has never officially released it. In March 2012, a workprint of the documentary was leaked online and was uploaded on the video-sharing website YouTube, by a United Kingdom cartoonist, before it was ultimately pulled. As of April 2015, some scenes from the documentary could be seen from the home media release, including the behind the scenes and the making of My Funny Friend and Me.
In April 2005, it was announced that DisneyToon Studios was producing a direct-to-video sequel entitled Kronk's New Groove, which was released on December 13, 2005, timed with the premiere of Disney Channel cartoon series, The film is based on the animated television series The Emperor's New School. Patrick Warburton, Eartha Kitt and Wendie Malick reprised their roles for the sequel and series, while J.P. Manoux replaced David Spade for the series and Fred Tatasciore voiced Pacha in season 1. John Goodman subsequently reprised his role for the second and final season for the series.
Kuzco appears as a guest in Disney's House of Mouse and Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse served as television series finale direct-to-video animated film produced by Walt Disney Pictures, spin-off of the animated television series.
Two video games were developed and released concurrent with the film. The first, for the Sony PlayStation, was developed by Argonaut Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America. The second, for the Nintendo Game Boy Color, was developed by Sandbox and published by Ubisoft. Both titles were released in PAL territories the following year. The PlayStation version was re-released for the North American PlayStation Network on July 27, 2010.
The Tokyo DisneySea rollercoaster attraction Raging Spirits took visual inspiration for its Inca ruins theme from the buildings in the film, with a structure based on Kuzco's palace similarly crowning the ruins site.