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Emperor, Where Art Thou?

Thursday, 14th June, 2001

I've watched more films in the last month than I have in the last year. Without a television or a video recorder I don't exactly have much chance to watch, and I'm far too busy anyway. This last month has given me opportunities galore and I've taken advantage of them. Of the slew of very varied movies, there are two that stand out.

The first is a Disney film, which surprised me no end, as with three nephews and a young niece, I have been exposed to Disney in a similar way to Japanese prisoners of war were exposed to dripping taps. I'm no classic Disney fan, except for the sick and twisted 'Bambi', as most of the early films were saccharine in the extreme and full of songs so artificially joyous that they grate the nerves. Repeated viewings can be seriously bad for your mental health. Even the newer classics, of the 'Beauty and the Beast' ilk, are just as bad, if not worse.

There were diamonds in the rough, of course, but only when the schmaltz was thrown out in favour of the quirky. Intriguingly, as Japanese anime (especially Hayao Miyazaki) has taken on the mantle of epic storytales and with much more style, the Disney studio has changed its direction a little. Suddenly there are levels of humour to be found that appeal to an adult audience as well as the kiddies. 'Hercules' was an adult film that happened to be suitable for kids; this one follows suit, with much of the same humour taken to more of a Loonie Tunes extreme.

It's called 'The Emperor's New Groove' and it must bear almost no relation to the originally planned movie, a serious epic about the Incan race called 'Kingdom of the Sun'. The only seriousness in this entire film is an underlying moral theme that suggests that it's cool to share. Other than that, it's style over substance, jokes over character. It's much more Loonie Tunes than Disney throughout, complete with manipulation of the film by the narrator, and to me that's pretty refreshing.

David Spade is Emperor Kuzco, as obnoxious and self-centred a ruler as there has ever been. He was born to play this part, just as Tom Hanks was born for 'Big'. He sacks his twisted advisor Yzma, who is a conglomeration of most of the evil Disney characters that have ever been, all rolled into one. Eartha Kitt plays her like Cruella de Ville, and her initial response to being sacked is to kill him in return.

Unfortunately her henchman is Kronk, an even lower IQ version of Sylvester Stallone, and the mixup means that rather than becoming a corpse, Kuzco becomes a llama. Kronk even fails to dispose of Kuzco the llama, who ends up in the hands of Pacha, a peasant with a heart of gold, played by John Goodman. Even though Kuzco wants to turn Pacha's house into a personal water park, the peasant feels that the long journey back to the palace might just find some humanity in the Emperor. We have an hour or so to find out if he's right.

The second film also gives us an hour to find out whether another journey reaches its destination or not, though the location is very different. George Clooney is the Odysseus in the Coen Brothers' retelling of 'The Odyssey', 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

Ulysses Everett McGill is the brains behind a trio of convicts escaping from the chain gang in 1930's Mississippi. He is merely trying to get home to his wife, who is apparently going to marry someone else, even though it's strange that we don't find this out until two thirds of the way through the film. Clooney is marvellous, in a very different role to those he has usually taken. He has a solid fan base, but one that rarely alters: this part is likely to change that.

His partners-in-crime are Coen Brothers mainstays John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, who had already remade his own classic into a modern setting, Shakespeare's 'Othello' into 'O'. Both Turturro and Nelson are more typically uneducated Southern gentlemen of the era, and both shine in their characters.

In most ways, however, it's the journey that becomes the main character, just as it does in 'The Emperor's New Groove'. Many of Odysseus's distractions in the original 'Odyssey' become distractions here but in a form appropriate to the setting. The blind seer becomes an old black man on a railway handcart; the sirens become three young ladies washing in a river; the cyclops becomes a dastardly bible salesman. Everything becomes highly appropriate to the setting, with dubious politicians on the campaign trail, corrupt lawmen bent on capture or lynching, and even a Ku Klux Klan gathering. The trio even get to sing into a can to record their own single, bringing them fame as The Soggy Bottom Boys without their even knowing it.

The Coens bring in a slew of historical characters too, making me wonder how many are fictional and how many aren't. Certainly George Nelson, who doesn't like being called 'Babyface', is the gangster bank robber of repute; and Tommy Johnson is a thinly disguised Robert Johnson, the blues legend who sold his soul to the devil. Our trio of heroes pick him up at the crossroads right after the fact. As synchronicity would have it, a day after watching the film, an unexpected obituary in 'The Daily Telegraph', only bought for the election results, points out that Pappy O'Daniel was real too.

Many things here are notable: the colour in the film is beautifully subdued, with just a hint of sepia to provide a historical edge; the plot's tangents are managed superbly, always commanding attention; and the soundtrack is sublime. A mix of bluegrass, gospel and blues provides a hillbilly Americana heaven. I will buy the soundtrack, something I haven't done for years.

Thinking back, my mind sees not just similarities and differences between these two movies, but wonders how the world of film would be changed given a mere couple of minor alterations in the fabric of cinematic history.

For instance, what if the Coen Brothers hadn't struck success early on in their careers? What if they'd taken writing jobs at Disney? What if their mildly subversive ideas became inextricably tangled in the web of moralism woven out of the classic schmaltz of the studio? We could have ended up with one film instead of two, and what a ride that would have been. Imagine the reviews.

Thumbs down:

'Disney massacres another classic from the annals of literature, turning Homer into Hopeless. Inexplicably, the Coen Brothers have transplanted Odysseus into the body of a llama, escaping an Incan chain gang to journey through jaguar infested jungle on the long and dangerous path back to the palace, his wife and a cure. Avoid at all costs.'

Thumbs up:

'Finally, Disney gives the Coen Brothers free rein to cast loose their wild talents and change the course of animation history. Playing with colour and style, they show promise as cinematographers as well as writers, but it's the sheer beauty of their subversive script that shines brightest here. Odysseus becomes an Incan Emperor, maliciously turned into a llama and shackled onto a chain gang. He escapes and journeys through trial and tribulation to return to his Empress and regain his humanity. His companions, a toad and a squirrel, come and go but are all present for the final musical number, an Incan sacrificial dance done in the finest bluegrass style. Unique and charming; a treat for the kids but a wonder for adults.'

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