Please note: The following text contains spoilers. Viewer discretion is also advised – The Emperor's New Groove is rated ‘U’. For more details on the film’s content from a Christian perspective, read Focus on The Family’s review from Plugged In:
Pacha: Someday, you're gonna wind up all alone, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself.
Kuzko: Thanks for that. I'll log that away…
Bursting onto the screen with a breathless, Looney Tunes-inspired mania, Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove was a significant, but welcome departure from the trappings of more standard, traditional fare from the Mouse House. Despite being originally devised as a musical, this breezy, 78-minute film trades toe-tapping hits for refreshing acerbic wit, and self-referential cheek. For once, there’s more here for the parents to enjoy and chew on, I think, than the children – but that’s certainly not a bad thing. For amidst the ridiculous antics throughout (most notably, a young emperor is turned into a llama), there remains a clear message at the film’s core – a gentle warning directed toward those who are becoming prideful or self-centred. In this way, Groove shares a similarity with the Bible’s own cautionary advice regarding the aforementioned topics. But for the latter, there is a seriousness to God’s teaching that mustn’t be ignored – for the eternal consequences of our pride and self-centredness are far more unpleasant than being turned into a llama…
In essence, Groove features a very simple narrative: A self-centred and arrogant young emperor named Kuzco (David Spade), who has everything he could wish for and calls himself “king of the world”, is planning on building a new waterpark on the plot of a pre-existing village, as a gift to himself. How cruel, I know. Naturally, this both upsets and angers the simple llama herder and current village resident, Pacha (John Goodman). But Kuzco has also enraged his ex-administrator, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), who’s botched assassination attempt on Kuzco’s life, turns him into a llama. With only Pacha willing to protect him from Yzma’s persistent attacks and help him regain his throne (on the condition he relocates his water park), the two unlikely friends must learn how to work together, in order to make it back to the palace in one piece…
From the get-go, the creative team behind Groove ensure that the main theme of the film is introduced, even within the very first few frames. For example, at every given opportunity, Kuzco is overheard (via narration) reminding us that we’re watching his story, or “my story”. Even when the plot is well underway and the focus might currently be placed on a secondary character, Kuzco (in breaking the fourth wall) frequently pauses the film to even remind us, the audience, who the story’s really about – most notably when he uses a red marker to circle the position of where he is located, in a given frame. Now, this is supposed to provide us with subversive, playful laughs – and indeed it does. But it also serves to highlight Kuzco’s Achilles heel: This young, impetuous man, cannot be satisfied without knowing that everything around him is working to serve or benefit him. Even when the film has already been formulated around his story, Kuzco is hellbent on making sure that he’s always the main character. It’s just as the film’s marketing material promised - “It’s all about me”.
Sure enough, however, the film is quick (and sensible) to remind audiences that such behaviour has small, but sometimes significant consequences that even we cannot foresee. Early on, Kuzco is seen frequently undermining and undervaluing his administrator and adviser, Yzma – the person who, if he had treated well and listened to her counsel in the first place, wouldn’t have later decided to plot to kill the emperor at all. But Kuzco is so set upon ruling his way, that he cannot help but drive almost everyone away from him. Perhaps the most concerning example of this is when Kuzco arranges to meet with Pacha, to explain that his entire village is about to be bulldozed and its inhabitants made homeless, in order to make way for ‘Kuzcotopia’ – a water park belonging solely to the emperor. Pacha is naturally rendered speechless at his lack of compassion and care for his subjects:
Pacha: “But, but, um…where will *we* live?”
Kuzco: “Hmm. Don't know, don't care. How's that?”
Unbeknownst to Kuzco (and audiences at that moment), his harsh treatment of Pacha would come back to haunt him when he needed a person’s help most. But as painful as that moment is to watch at the time, it serves to illustrate a very real, practical and biblical point, about the dangers of being self-centred: When we’re so wrapped up in ourselves, we don’t truly see and value others, ourselves, or God. The Apostle Paul, writing in Philippians 2:3–4 (NRSV), actually taught against such behaviour when he instructed his readers to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others”. Instead of being self-centred, the measure by which we look after ourselves and others is to be balanced – not tipping either to one side or the other. We’re supposed to take good care of ourselves, yes, but we were never designed to just focus on ourselves. Jesus himself preached this same message, when he stated that the second most important commandment, after loving God first, is to “…love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31, NRSV).
Again, we are clearly called to prioritise the loving of God first, and then others, above ourselves. But the Bible teaches that humanity has chosen, time and time again, to do nothing but pursue its own selfish and wrongful desires, in the hope of being fulfilled. Whatever we wanted, we set out to pursue it – no matter the cost to ourselves or to others. And as a result of humanity following those selfish desires, we choose not to honour God or our fellow man. Therefore, “everyone has sinned” and “we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” for living (Romans 3:23, NLT). And in our self-centredness, these “sinful passions” only ever bring forth “fruit for death” (Romans 7:5, CEB), meaning that our selfish pursuits ultimately do us no good, in the eternal sense. For we know that “payment for sin is (unavoidable, spiritual) death” (Romans 6:23, NLT).
Suddenly, the draw of self-centredness seems futile. Gathering objects, making money or attempting to make ourselves happy then, seems like a truly worthless pursuit in the face of eternity. And Jesus even said as much, when he criticised the idea of trying to live a wholly, self-centred life: “Whoever tries to keep (preserve, or continually improve) his life will give up true life. But whoever gives up his life will have true life” (Luke 17:33, ICB). Here, Jesus encourages us not to pursue the things of this world, but to pursue Him first, above all things – for it is then, when we are in relationship with the God of the universe, that we will have the secure gift of eternal life, following our earthly death. And once we choose to accept Him into our lives and turn away from self-centredness with His help, we will be able to love God as we should and show compassion and love to those around us. But this is only made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was sent to earth to die for us on the cross, taking the penalty that we deserved for our self-centredness – when we sinned against God and others, without a single care - in order to set us free from death itself: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NLT).
Whilst Kuzco inevitably changes his ways by journeying alongside and thereby coming to understand Pacha’s position, as both a humble man and a loving father, we need to ensure that we come to that same position through becoming a friend of Jesus instead - asking Him to forgive us of our self-centredness, help us change our ways and grow the trait of humility within our lives. Most positively, Kuzco’s life illuminate for us that the self-centred life – one of service to ‘things’ and our own desires – is only ever a solitary one. But life in community, with God first and then others, brings present and eternal joy. Thankfully, we don’t need to go on a lengthy journey like Kuzco to find a ‘new groove’ – we need only come to Jesus today and watch Him transform our lives forever.
Why not prayerfully invite a friend or family member who doesn’t yet know Jesus, to watch The Emperor's New Groove? Use the film’s themes to ask them what they thought of the film, if they spotted any links to Christianity and what they might think of the Gospel’s response to this subject.
If you feel able to, ask them what they think about the film’s view of self-centredness and just pursuing one’s own desires, over another’s. How did they feel watching Kuzco act in such a way, at the beginning of the film? Might he have been entitled to, simply because he was the emperor? Or, should have he attempted to be more compassionate towards his subjects? Ask them what they thought of Kuzco’s treatment of Pacha, and the issue of building his water park on their land – was he aware of the gravity of the situation? If so, how? Do they think that Kuzco could have found a better way to communicate with the people around him? If so, how?
Later prompt them to consider their own lives and ask whether they’ve ever been self-centred. Do they believe that it was misguided? Did it have a negative impact upon their life? Why? Go on to share that we are not created to live lives of self-dedication, because we will lose sight of god and of our fellow man. Ultimately, a lifestyle such as this will lead us to live in isolation from others and also from God – presently, and eternally: “Whoever tries to keep (preserve, or continually improve) his life will give up true life. But whoever gives up his life will have true life” (Luke 17:33, ICB).
Take the opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel message with them – noting that God is the only One we should be centred upon. For when we love God with all our hearts, we can then be better prepared to love and serve others from a place of compassion and care, which will draw us away from ourselves, and into community with God and those around us – not towards a spiritual dead end, when we reach the end of our lives. Then, invite them (if you feel prompted to by God) to consider accepting Jesus into their life today.
Prior to watching the film for yourself, however, take a moment to pray that God would speak to you through the film. If you feel comfortable, pray this prayer over all of your future, film-watching experiences:
Dear Lord, as I watch this film, I ask that you would be present here with me. Highlight to me anything within it that is honourable, anything that can be used in conversation for your Kingdom purposes. Amen.
The Emperor's New Groove is currently available to stream on Disney+.