Disclaimer: Stuff belongs to Disney. Duh.
So like a complete sellout, I am adapting my post titles with this mainstream concept called “comprehension.”
Today, I’ll be looking at something which doesn’t quite have a term, though I suppose the best I can think of is the difference between genuine and disingenuous storytelling. Basically when a story feels like it can stand on its own, or if it’s just obvious pandering to a particular trend or idea.
We may have subjective tastes and values, but I think there’s something we can agree on: We can tell if a film is speaking to us, or at us. We can tell if a film is comfortable in its own skin, or trying too hard to be something it’s not.
And to do that, I think I’ll illustrate it with one of my favourite Disney films. It initially started as a conventional adventure, and was DRASTICALLY reinvented from the ground up as something else entirely. That decision was the greatest thing to ever happen in its existence, making it a beloved film to many for just being absolutely awesome.
Pictured above: I’d like to see you try and explain this.
…Frozen? You thought I was talking about FROZEN? HA! Nah, I’m gonna be talking about a movie I actually LIKE.
The Emperor’s New Groove
So, this film might be a bit of a cult classic, albeit one which enjoyed its fair share of success. The Emperor’s New Groove is basically an adventure of a spoiled prince who gets turned into a llama by his scheming advisor and, with the help of a salt-of-the-earth village chief, gets turned back into a human and learns to be a better person. So far so standard for a Disney summary.
Now imagine turning that into a COMEDY. Giving it unreliable narrators, physical comedy, tons of references and mockery, and operating on one simple rule: If there’s any way we can get a laugh out of this, we’ll do it. Exposition? Let’s ham it up! Villainous plotting? Slapstick! Tension building up? Let’s deflate that with some ridiculousness! Surprise setback? Point out it made no sense! And what should be the final boss? Oh, sure, let’s give it a dark, sinister buildup of inky smoke and a wicked laugh…and reveal a fluffy kitten.
Sounds like Family Guy: The Movie Reference, right? A cheap, gimmicky parody, the sort which hardly has an ounce of originality beyond saying “Hey, you remember that thing? Boy, that was a stupid thing, huh? WINK!”
The Emperor’s New Groove, however, is more than a parody of a genre; it’s an actual story. Although it is tongue-in-cheek and delights in its silliness, it stands on its own two feet. So what’s the standard by which I reach this conclusion?
In All Seriousness
Let’s start with the writing. Although this movie lives and breathes comedy, it doesn’t ignore the shared qualities of good storytelling, but instead takes the writing seriously. It has a functioning plot that is paced well, characters that are fleshed out and interesting, and genuine emotion and excitement that fit in naturally. Behind the laughs, the sarcasm, and the slapstick, you’ll find real feelings: love for family, self-absorption, burning resentment, and so forth.
These characters are treated with truth and dignity with motivations and stakes that matter to them (Kuzco’s becoming human again, Pacha saving his village, and Yzma plotting to get the power she craves) instead of knowing winks at the audience every 30 seconds. And it is, in fact, because they have paced these elements perfectly that none of them compete with each other. You don’t get the feeling that a funny interruption is forced, or that an emotional moment is not a token attempt at storytelling; each moment is given space to breathe, and in that space, they can visit each other freely as old friends.
The parody, on the other hand, doesn’t have characters; it has cutouts for the writer’s criticism. It doesn’t have a plot; it has the source material, tweaked to showcase what it’s tearing down or building up. It doesn’t have pacing; it has a fanatical rush to tell us more of the same thing. And this may sound like an indictment of cheap movie references, but I assure you, it also applies to serious fiction, too. Think of the most pretentious, preachy story you remember, and try applying what I’ve mentioned at the start of this paragraph.
A Little Nonsense Now And Then
So that’s honesty on the serious side, but what about comedy, the lifeblood of this movie? What is it about its comedy that comes across as genuine over other parodies? After all, I imagine some of you rhetorically asking, can comedy be a good thing if he’s so down on parodies? First off, fair question, I welcome healthy, constructive discussion.
Well, although a sense of humour is a subjective thing, there IS one truth about The Emperor’s New Groove: It’s comfortable in its own skin. Whatever you think of the comedy (which is brilliant), it never apologises for its goofy gags or sharply funny dialogue, nor for the references it makes. It’s keenly aware of them, and takes its cue from that. But that cue is not meant for the sake of getting the biggest laughs, but for what would work best for the story.
And because of that, it retains a consistent mood throughout. Yes, consistent even when Kuzco is literally interrupting the movie at an emotional moment to provide unreliable commentary. That is the seriousness of consistent characterisation ENHANCING the truth of its humorous heart. This movie isn’t a struggle between comedy and emotion; it’s a marriage.
The parody, on the other hand, cannot get two or three jokes through without pointing out that it is making a joke. It does not care about things like timing, or which moments are meant to be emotional, or even what varieties of humour would work. It doesn’t even practice moderation, expecting you to force out laughter each and every time it lampoons a plot hole.
I Yam What I Yam
So that’s The Emperor’s New Groove in a nutshell, and why I think it’s brilliant. It’s not just good because it’s good, it’s good because it simply has the sincerity to be itself. And in that refreshing honesty, in the simple act of telling its story on its own terms, it transcends its labels and uplifts everything about it.
That’s not to say that a movie can’t stand up for something or have a core message. In fact, there’s no rule that a ‘parody’ by any criteria (including mine) can’t also be a great movie (Monty Python and Mel Brooks come to mind). And of course, even the most heartfelt movie had a lot of effort and consideration put into how to hit the right notes for a target audience. That’s the beauty of creativity: goodness can come from all sorts of sources.
But at the core of it all, whatever you set out to do, you need harmony between your elements, and something deep down at your core. And even if that core is simply “I just wanna make fun of Robin Hood!” you need the security to tell it your way, not the way you think will get people to praise you. Whatever the movie, whether it’s a comedy, romance, or drama, THAT is what it means to be honest in storytelling.
You see, the parody (whether it is a silly spoof or serious propaganda) has no internal truth, no purpose except their target. Parodies, at their core, are all about pretend. They pretend they are a movie, they pretend they are a scene, they pretend they are something for one purpose: To make their point. And when the noise has faded, it leaves behind nothing.
And The Emperor’s New Groove isn’t pretending to be anything. It’s not Let’s Laugh At Disney Movies. It’s not Postmodern Agenda: The Documentary. It’s not a message pretending to be a story; it’s a story with a message, and a damn good one, too.