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WITH 'GROOVE,' DISNEY'S IN A RUT.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Set high in the ancient Andes, ``The Emperor's New Groove'' marks a plateauing of Disney's long-running animation renaissance.

While there have certainly been high and low points in the company's feature cartoon output over the last dozen years, every film at least tried to take new artistic or entertainment avenues to the well-worn, if highly commercial, destination. But ``Groove'' is the first one since ``Little Mermaid'' to play more like the flat, uninspired fare that the company pumped out between the time of Walt's death in the mid-1960s and 1989.

The film is funny, frantic and colorful enough to keep the small fry diverted for its short but strained 78 minutes. However, 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.

Part of ``Groove's'' problem undoubtedly arises from the fact that it was originally conceived and developed as a more serious, pre-Columbian adventure fable, but got shifted at midpoint into a David Spade burlesque. While that may please the more devoted fans of the young comedian's sarcastic humor, his riffs won't sound all that inspired to the casual admirer. And if you're among the many who just think he's irritating, well, there's always ``The Grinch.''

Spade narrates and stars as Kuzco, the egomaniacal teen-age despot of a vast realm of cloud-scraping peaks and dark, danger-filled jungles. He's a selfish little creep who is only relatively sympathetic in comparison to his thoroughly wicked, power-mad advisor Yzma (voiced by Eartha Kitt). When Kuzco boots the wizened witch out of her cushy job, she retaliates by turning him into a talking llama.

That's right: a llama that sounds like David Spade. As anthropomorphic Disney critters go, this is a long way from the elegance of ``The Lion King,'' or, for that matter, the awkward poignance of ``Dumbo.''

Anyway, the now cloven-hoofed emperor ends up in a tense alliance with the big, decent-to-a-fault peasant Pacha (John Goodman, whose screen character bears a remarkably strong physical resemblance). While still human, Kuzco had callously ordered Pacha and his family off the hilltop that generations of his family had farmed in order to build a gaudy vacation home. But the selfish monarch needs the big guy's help to navigate his way safely back to the palace and force Yzma to reverse her spell.

Whether the ungrateful changeling will repay Pacha's loyalty remains a minor conflict throughout the standard-issue chase, escape and cliffhanging proceedings. The other marginally interesting subplot involves the possibility that Yzma's handsome, muscular and dumb-as-a-board servant Kron (``Seinfeld's'' Patrick Warburton) will develop a conscience and the intelligence with which to use it.

The director, Mark Dindal, is a 20-year animation veteran whose first feature-directing effort, the little-seen ``Cats Don't Dance,'' was not what you'd call successful. But it was, at least, notably idiosyncratic. ``Groove'' comes off as a film lacking any distinctive edge. Even its climax, a kind of giganticized, living pachinko game played out on a looming carved edifice, devolves into so much repetitive falling and bouncing.

After this generic goat, Team Disney really needs to get its groove back.

``THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE''

(Rated G)

The stars: Voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton, Wendie Malick.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Chris Williams, David Reynolds and Dindal. Produced by Randy Fullmer. Released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: One hour, 18 minutes.

Playing: Citywide.

Our rating: Two and one half stars

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Pacha, left, voiced by John Goodman, assists Emperor Kuzco, now a llama, voiced by David Spade, in Disney's ``The Emperor's New Groove.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Dec 15, 2000
Words:617
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