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When Walt Disney Animation released its 50th animated feature film, Tangled, back in 2010, the Rapunzel retelling became the highest-grossing in-house Disney cartoon since The Lion King — and even taking inflation into account, was the Mouse House's biggest hit since 1999's Tarzan. After a long and troubled production history, Tangled helped shut the door on a decade of uncertainty at Disney. In the 10 years since its release, Disney Animation has regularly produced big hits like Moana, Zootopia, and the Frozen series, no longer paling in comparison to their corporate siblings at Pixar.
As it happens, the pre-Tangled era, one fraught with uncertainty, was unofficially kicked off by another infamously troubled production: The Emperor’s New Groove, which turned 20 this month. Both films emerged from a painful creative process to represent some of the best contemporary films Disney animation has to offer — though they seem to have had wildly different effects on the studio as a whole.
Though 2000’s Dinosaur does get counted as one of Disney’s “official” animated features, that movie was an experiment in merging photorealistic animation with live-action environments and was developed outside of the company’s usual pipeline. Fellow millennium-turning feature The Emperor’s New Groove, on the other hand, was supposed to be a homegrown triumph. In the wake of 1994's The Lion King, director Roger Allers pitched an epic South American riff on The Prince and the Pauper. Kingdom of the Sun, as it was then called, would have been a serious-toned musical adventure (with the requisite romance and comedy) in the vein of Pocahontas or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As chronicled in the unreleased behind-the-scenes documentary The Sweatbox (which you can probably find in full on YouTube), company leadership felt that the project wasn’t working, and gradually converted it into a recast, smaller-scale comedy.
The strange thing about the film eventually rechristened The Emperor’s New Groove is that by abandoning its original ambitions, Disney produced a movie that stands further apart from its previous cartoons. Rather than an arrogant ruler switching places with a humble peasant, the movie teams up Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) with big-hearted family man Pacha (John Goodman) for a buddy comedy that vaguely resembles those that Spade made with Chris Farley — only with a more straight-faced Goodman in the Farley role, and Spade transformed into an aghast llama. Though the llama transformation was one of the major elements retained from Kingdom, the tone was drastically different. Groove is fast-paced and silly, with elaborate, vividly animated slapstick comedy — at one point, a swarm of bats fills Kuzco’s mouth — and constant fourth-wall breaks as Kuzco’s narration stops the movie cold to complain about his portrayal.
It’s a simple and probably cost-efficient idea (provided it isn’t preceded by scrapping a half-finished epic beforehand), and one that Disney has seemed oddly reluctant (or unable) to recapture: Make a loose, high-energy cartoon comedy with a hint of Looney Tunes irreverence. An overtly comedic approach to feature animation would become more common with DreamWorks' Shrek in 2001, but even today, CG cartoons often have trouble modulating their mayhem; with so much technological force at their disposal, slapstick easily pushes into overblown action sequences. Groove, powered by wonderful vocal performances from Patrick Warburton, Eartha Kitt, Goodman, and a possibly career-best Spade, has the feel of something that’s been inventively revised on the fly. Of course, even the most spontaneously written cartoon takes enormous effort to finish and bring to the screen — which makes Groove’s energy all the more remarkable. The filmmakers made one of the funniest Disney cartoons under what sounds like extreme duress.
Not long after Groove hit theaters in December 2000, longtime animator Glen Keane made his initial 2001 pitch for a film based on the story of Rapunzel. It took nearly a decade for this to become Tangled. While the finished product now looks Classic Disney, there are hints of a more tumultuous production in its opening moments.
Like Groove, the film begins with a flipped narration that tries to comment upon itself: Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) reassures the audience that his dramatic pronouncement that “this is the story of how I died” isn’t so scary, self-consciously promising fun and laughs to come. A few moments later, he rushes through some fairy-tale exposition with a cutesy “you get the picture,” with all the smarm of a DreamWorks movie perpetually nervous about losing the audience. (He might as well add in some commentary about how both boys and girls will enjoy the incoming adventure equally; the early Tangled trailers notoriously downplayed the princess elements in favor of supposedly boy-friendly action.) In these moments, it’s easy to see remnants of some earlier version of a story, truncated for the sake of expediency and a little nervous about its ability to get people excited.
Apart from a few of those early seams, though, Tangled wears its nine years’ worth of revisions and restarts well. While plenty of Disney princess stories modify the original fairy tale, the changes that Tangled makes to the Rapunzel story are unusually nuanced and productive. Rather than being aware of her imprisonment by a witch, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) takes Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) as her actual mom, forming a psychologically abusive bond with the woman who kidnapped her as a baby to take advantage of her magical, youth-giving hair. This relationship gives Tangled some dramatic heft, and Rapunzel’s relationship with quippy rogue Flynn adds a rom-com spark. Like its painterly version of computer animation, Tangled takes a lot of classic Disney touchstones — animal sidekicks, obligatory musical numbers, old-fashioned derring-do — and refreshes them.
Tangled doesn’t challenge princess movie formulas as radically as, say, Frozen, but it was welcome proof that Disney Animation could maintain its own legacy-honoring voice after years of increasing competition. Its enduring success seems to have given Disney confidence that it could produce all-ages, crowd-pleasing blockbusters again, helping to revive one of its most storied brands: the Disney Princess. (The amount of new princess merch that The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Brave helped inspire in the early 2010s is daunting.)
If there’s a downside to the movie’s legacy, it’s that sense of conglomerate-friendly, 21st-century branding — the conviction that with enough tinkering, almost anything can be salvaged and upgraded into a $200 million face-saving blockbuster. Most of Disney’s post-2010 cartoons have been good or better, but sometimes the artistry slips, and the face of screenwriter-y calculation becomes visible. And it’s hard not to wonder if part of Tangled’s legacy is the studio’s newfound willingness to rely on sequels; if Frozen 3 spends a decade in development, at least there’s guaranteed audience interest on the other side.
Disney is undoubtedly in better shape than it was 20 years ago; it’s safe to assume there isn’t another Home on the Range or Chicken Little looming on the horizon. Yet in retrospect, there was something exciting about the studio not appearing sure where to go next.
Emperor’s New Groove was part of a short-burst Disney experimentation that included nature adventure (Dinosaur), sci-fi/fantasy (Atlantis; Treasure Planet), more intimate, character-based loopiness (Lilo & Stitch), and, yes, that cow musical with a bunch of yodeling. Not all of them bombed, but the results were unpredictable enough to steer the company away from a more eclectic lineup. Though New Groove got good reviews, did respectable business, and performed well enough on home video to inspire a direct-to-video sequel and TV series, it didn’t inspire Disney to toy with its approach more often. Tangled makes more sense as a company beacon; it’s one of Disney's best films — and one that was pulled out from a decade of turmoil. It’s just a shame that the rescuing of The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t have the numbers to count as a major success story.