April 04, 2020

Disney finally finds animation’s ‘New Groove’

In theaters

THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE, G, 78 minutes, directed by Mark Dindal, written by David Reynolds.

For a moment, let’s forget “The Emperor’s New Groove” and instead focus on something more interesting – Disney’s new groove.

Finally, the studio has taken a risk – a big one. They’ve pulled away from their tried-and-true-and-oh-so-tiresome formula to produce an animated film that’s easily one of the freshest, most exciting undertakings the studio has done in years.

Indeed, by not clogging the screen with computerized animation, a wealth of song-and-dance numbers, or, more profoundly, a story dependent on historical fact or myth, “The Emperor’s New Groove” steers clear of the trappings that may have worked for Disney in the past, but which, in recent years, have crippled it creatively and made most of its efforts seem glumly rote.

This new movie exists for one reason – to be fun. But that wasn’t always the case. Initially, “The Emperor’s New Groove” was to be called “The Empire of the Sun,” a far more serious epic to be scored by the far-too-serious Sting.

But director Mark Dindal wisely nixed that idea for something different. Scrapping much of Sting’s score, he focused on the script, the jokes, the wit, the characters. Secure with that, he hired a team of animators clearly inspired by the looser drawings of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, and asked them to create animation that was streamlined, uncluttered. They succeeded – beautifully.

How beautifully? “The Emperor’s New Groove,” from a script by David Reynolds, is this holiday season’s best new film for families. Forget the dull, cynical excess of “The Grinch,” a nauseating disappointment. Even “102 Dalmatians” and “Rugrats in Paris,” both fine films, can’t compete with the consistent laughs “Groove” generates – or with its clever story.

The film follows Kuzco (voice of David Spade), a selfish, wise-cracking emperor of a mythic South American kingdom who makes the mistake of dismissing from his charge the gruesomely bony Yzma (Eartha Kitt). Furious to be fired by this little runt, Yzma, who looks like a cross between Cruella De Vil and a corpse, whips herself into a frenzy that’s so toxic, she vows to kill Kuzco with a shot of poison

With the help of her bumbling assistant, Kronk (Patrick Warburton of “Seinfeld”), Yzma uses that poison, but it doesn’t kill Kuzco. In fact, it only turns him into a llama, something Kuzco will forever be unless he finds the antidote.

With John Goodman as Pacha, a kind shepherd who agrees to help Kuzco if Kuzco agrees to save his home from destruction, “The Emperor’s New Groove” feels slightly too long even at 78 minutes, but that’s a mere quibble. Overall, the film is great fun, particularly whenever Yzma takes to the screen. With Eartha Kitt’s familiar growl punctuating her manic face, she is easily the best Disney villain to come along in years.

Grade: A-

On video and DVD

LOSER, PG-13, 93 minutes, written and directed by Amy Heckerling.

When you’ve written and directed two of the best, most honest comedies about what it means to be a teen-ager at the end of the last century – 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and 1996’s “Clueless” – the expectations for your insight into teen culture at the turn of the new century are about as high as it gets.

Admittedly, it can’t be easy to encapsulate and understand all the peculiarities of Generation Y, but if you’re going to try – and especially if your name is Amy Heckerling – the effort has to be better than the teen-age fare Hollywood keeps hauling into theaters.

The good news here is that Heckerling’s latest, “Loser,” is better than most of today’s teen-age films. The bad news? It’s nowhere near as great as her previous two efforts.

Based on Heckerling’s college years, the film follows a disenfranchised outsider who doesn’t fit in: Paul Tanneck (Jason Biggs), a bright, likable dork from a small town whose nasty roommates at NYU ridicule him for his unconventional looks.

Enter Dora Diamond (Mena Suvari), a cute misfit involved in a messy relationship with her verbally abusive English professor (Greg Kinnear in a terrible performance), and it doesn’t take much to figure out where this film is going after she and Paul meet.

Unlike “Fast Times” and “Clueless,” “Loser” leaves no lasting impression. Two films are occurring here at once – the budding romance between Dora and Paul, and the drunken, druggy scenes of college life that only serve as an annoying distraction.

Worse, “Loser” often seems to exist only to sell its soundtrack; throughout, the film is peppered with so many strategically placed songs, it’s often unclear who’s telling the story – Heckerling or the songwriters. That sort of laziness harms a film whose director should have turned only to herself, not to pop culture, to mine the truth out of her characters’ lives.

Grade: C-

SMALL TIME CROOKS, 95 minutes, PG, written and directed by Woody Allen.

Woody Allen’s “Small Time Crooks” feels like Dominick Dunne’s 1988 novel, “People Like Us,” charged with laughing gas.

Its first hour is some of Allen’s best work, his humor and wit rarely sharper as he swirls his latest around two charmless, unsophisticated yet likable morons who try to buy their way into New York society after coming into loads of dough – literally and figuratively.

In the film, Allen is Ray Winkler, a former bank robber whose marriage to former stripper and now manicurist, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), is straight out of “The Honeymooners.” Indeed, just as Ralph Kramden used to concoct schemes to get Alice and himself out of poverty, so does Ray, with Frenchy ridiculing those schemes in ways that would make Alice Kramden cheer.

Ray’s latest scheme is certainly ambitious. He plans to rob a bank in New York by leasing a building near it. In that building, Frenchy and her cousin May (Elaine May) will run a cookie shop while Ray and his friends (Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz) tunnel under it to the bank’s vault.

To reveal too much of the plot would ruin its surprises, so we’ll leave it at this: Frenchy’s cookies become such a huge success, she and Ray are soon schmoozing with the ultrarich, decorating a new mansion in zebra stripes and leopard spots, and exposing themselves for who they really are – small-time crooks with hearts of gold.

Grade: B+

Christopher Smith is the Bangor Daily News film critic. His reviews appear Mondays in Style, Thursdays in the Scene, and Thursdays on “NEWS CENTER at 5:30” on WLBZ-2 and WCSH-6.

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