October 20, 2007

Review of The Emperor's New School

I wasn't completely accurate when I said there's only one Native on network TV this year. I just found some more Natives--on a Saturday morning cartoon. The Emperor's New School, a teenage version of The Emperor's New Groove, has apparently been airing since January 2006.

Of course, the characters are Native in appearance only. None of them are voiced by Native actors. This series is about as authentically Native as The Flintstones was authentically Cro-Magnon.

The show's premise:

The Emperor's New School [Animated TV Series] (2006)The weekly, half-hour cartoon series The Emperor's New School was a spin-off of two Disney animated features, The Emperor's New Groove (2000) and the direct-to-video Kronk's New Groove (2005). Set in pre-Columbian South America, the series, like its predecessors, chronicled the misadventures of spoiled young Incan emperor Kuzco, who was forever learning valuable life lessons en route to the throne. In the TV series, Kuzco was obliged to graduate from school before he could claim the crown. Thwarting the protagonist every step of the way was his power-hungry former administrator Yzma, who had disguised himself as the school's principal, and Yzma's principal stooge Kronk, who posed as a fellow student. Eartha Kitt, Patrick Warburton, Wendie Malick and Bob Bergen, who had provided voices for the original films, repeated their roles on the TV spin-off.I enjoyed The Emperor's New School for the same reason I enjoyed the original movie. Namely:

Common Sense ReviewFast, fun, and funny, THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE is a sheer delight. It deserves to be taken out of the rarified category of "animation" and called what it is: a cartoon. It has more in common with classic Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Road Runner than with Disney animation classics.

This is not one of those movies where we see the sun glistening off every leaf on every tree. It has no perky heroine with big hair sitting down in the first half hour to look up into the sky and sing about her dreams. No adorable animal sidekicks to be immortalized on backpacks, lunchboxes, and beanie babies. No soulful romantic duet to be reprised over the credits and nominated for an Oscar. In fact, no love interest at all.

What's left is nonstop action and comedy. Most important, we get a kind of freewheeling, even improvisational tone that is downright revolutionary for a big holiday theatrical release from Disney, and a very welcome relief after 102 Dalmatians that came out just before it. The movie even spoofs itself, along with other movies from The Fly to The Wizard of Oz. This almost casual feel may have something to do with the origin of the movie, which was originally intended to be a much more serious and ambitious story set in the time of the Incas. Then they junked the original script, kept the backgrounds, and created an entirely new story to go on top of it.
As the last part indicates, don't expect to learn anything about the Inca:

Common Sense NoteParents need to know that this show is intended for entertainment purposes only--despite the potentially interesting and educational setting (an Incan empire), there's no learning about history or the culture of these people.Rob's review:  I've seen only one episode of The Emperor's New School, but here are what seem to be its pluses and minuses.

The good

As the review above indicates, The Emperor's New School is reminiscent of old Looney Tunes cartoons. That alone is a positive recommendation.

The series works because it focuses on David Spade's Kuzco (even though someone else is now voicing the character). If you liked Spade's arrogant, self-centered, sarcastic characters in the past--and I did--you'll love Kuzco. His narcissistic, negative attitude is a breath of fresh air among all the upbeat and supportive TV teens.

In The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco's power and thus his haughtiness was unlimited. Here the situation reins him in. Though it isn't in his nature, he has to play nice with others or he won't graduate and become emperor.

Despite Kuzco's character, The Emperor's New Groove was only a partial success because of its lengthy plot. Kronk's New Groove broke the story into 30-minute segments, but Kronk is a supporting character, not a lead. The Emperor's New School's format--one or two short cartoons starring Kuzco with Kronk as sidekick--is just about right.

The bad

I'm guessing Kuzco will learn something about teamwork and cooperation every week. That could get tiresome quickly. As characters such as Calvin (& Hobbes) and Bart Simpson demonstrate, irredeemable is often more fun than redeemable.

The Emperor's New School makes no pretense of presenting genuine Inca culture. The characters dress in modern knockoffs of Inca garments, and the architecture occasionally looks vaguely Incan. That's about it.

The show is full of anachronisms and oddities that have no place in the pre-Columbian Andes. Credit cards...a telescope...an elephant...a lemon-lime drink...a superhero comic book...a coffeemaker...robots made of wood and stone. As I said, it's a modern Stone-Age Inca comedy just like The Flintstones is a modern Stone-Age caveman comedy.

Although The Emperor's New School presents no real culture, Yzma is still an evil sorceress with potions and spells. Her lair is sometimes decorated with demonic heads or figures. The implication, if you think about it, is that Native beliefs are simple and superstitious.

The saving grace is that this show is so wacky that I don't think kids will take it seriously. From what I saw, it doesn't make any explicit reference to the Inca. Essentially, the show is set in a fantasy kingdom with no connection to reality. If you're not going to portray an indigenous culture authentically, that's probably the way to go.

Note:  Below is a YouTube of The Emperor's New School's theme song. The tune is horrible, but the video gives you an idea of the show's style and energy.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the show does make explicit references to Incan culture. The word Incan is used several times and another example is an episode where the Incan God Viracocha is mentioned. I used to think those references were kind of fun even though I realize that most kids probably won't get them. But now there is an episode where an "exchange student" appears. And guess from where? That's right. Spain. And this "exchange student" is not only hired by Yzma to help her kill Kuzco, but also trying to steal Kuzco's love intrest Malina, away from him. Someone at a message board called it a "playful reference". I call it tasteless.

Rob said...

As I said, I've seen only one episode at this point. I'll keep watching.