What all three films have in common, of course, is that they date to an experimental stage in Disney animation following the collapse of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, with its show-stopping musical numbers and soulful, misunderstood heroines and heroes wanting more, had collapsed.
You could say Disney had lost their groove, and while they never quite got their groove back, in their efforts to find a new groove they did at least produce a couple of pretty groovy films.
In fact, it’s hard to say which is groovier: The Emperor’s New Groove, with its jaunty soundtrack and rapid-fire punchlines, or Lilo & Stitch, with its Elvis tunes and Hawaii island vibe. (If you have thoughts about that, please share them in the combox!)
The not-so-groovy film in this lineup is Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which gets credit for pioneering an adventure-style film with no musical numbers, but comes off like tepid imitation Miyazaki, compounded by ethnic stereotypes and and flaky New Age spirituality.
The Emperor’s New Groove is a wacky redemption story blending a Chuck Jones-like sensibility and irreverent humor with real sincerity and heart.
David Spade gets the best lines as the fast-talking, egocentric emperor in an anachronistically contemporary pre-Columbian Mesoamerican empire, but John Goodman anchors the movie as straight man Pacha, an unassuming peasant family man with a deep sense of decency. You can get a sense of their relationship from this clip.
Equally winsome is Pacha’s wife ChiChi (Wendy Malick), an attractive, very competent, very pregnant, stay-at-home mother of two adorable and very funny kids. I love the fact that ChiChi’s pregnancy isn’t a plot point, and we don’t even see the baby until the end credits.
The funniest thing in the film, though, is the relationship between Eartha Kitt's villainous Yzma and Patrick Warburton's deadpan Kronk. You can get a little sense of it here:
Unfortunately, Kronk is much less funny in the decidedly ungroovy direct-to-video sequel Kronk’s New Groove, bundled on the Blu-ray as a bonus feature. Skip it.
If The Emperor’s New Groove is one of the most positive depictions of an intact, happy family in recent Disney canon, Lilo & Stitch offers a moving, honest portrayal of the effects of growing up without such a family.
Little Lilo is among my favorite Disney heroines, partly because she’s so imaginative and unique, but also because because she’s so broken and needy. Many Disney protagonists are orphans; Lilo’s story is the one that doesn’t gloss over what this means for her emotionally.
Excluded by her cliquey peers, Lilo pathetically considers them her “friends” — though this doesn’t stop her from biting one of them, or from taking symbolic vengeance on them in an erzatz voodoo-style gesture. (Deadpan explanation to a social worker: “My friends need to be punished.”)
When she meets Stitch, a vicious little space alien, she what she needs and wants him to be: a friendly pet whose sometimes unsettling behavior suggests to her only that he too is troubled and looking for love.
Though bittersweet, there’s a real optimism and hopefulness to the film, and the Hawaiian setting is a real asset. See the clip for an example.
For Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the most I can say is there’s some nice animation and impressive visuals, as the clip illustrates.
Still, there’s nothing here that isn’t done about a thousand times better in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, without worship of ancestors and crystals, among other things. Skip this one.