There are two competing cultural narratives that frame the stories we find in modern entertainment. The culturally ascendant narrative is that of expressive individualism, in which the protagonist finds themselves at odds with the traditions and norms of society; those norms and expectations stifle his or her inner identity. In the second act, they learn to express themselves despite the opinions and consternation of their peers and elders, and in the final act, society learns to embrace them as they are.
We see this narrative over and over in modern cinema. We find it in Mulan, in which Mulan finds herself at odds with the norms of society; she feels stifled by those norms. She eventually flouts those norms, and in the final act, society learns to embrace her for who she is. We find it in October Sky, in which Homer feels stifled by the expectations of his father and his community; he eventually flouts those expectations, and they eventually embrace him for it.
The other narrative is harder to find these days. That is the narrative of repentance and redemption. In the first act, the protagonist has developed habits, worldviews, and attitudes that are wrong. In the second act, they have experiences that catalyze a conversion, in which they realize their dire need for repentance. In the third act, they find redemption and new life as they abandon wholesale the attitudes and habits that bound them before.
This is, essentially, the Christian narrative, and finds life in the basic premise of Christianity itself: the mankind is fallen and in need of saving, and that this saving involves a recognition of the wretchedness of our former ways and wholehearted repentance. We see elements of this narrative in Iron Man, and a watered down version of it in Doctor Strange. But it’s rare to find in these cinematic stories a conversion to true humility. Even after their life-altering experiences, neither Tony Stark nor Stephen Strange could really be called a humble men.
But it’s not just that Emperor’s New Groove offers us a story of repentance and redemption — it’s the kind of repentance highlighted in the film that is so refreshing. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t be a jerk, that we shouldn’t sell weapons to terrorists, that we shouldn’t be arrogant and look with disdain upon others. But while giving us this basic redemption story, Emperor’s New Groove gives us something far deeper as well: an exploration of two different ways of being, and how we move from one to the other.
In one “way of being”, others are objects to us. We see them as either instruments to our own ends, obstacles in our way, threats, or irrelevant altogether. (They are irrelevant to the extent that they are neither means, obstacles, or threats.) This is what the philosopher Martin Buber refers to as the “I-it” way of being. Others are not real to us as people when we relate with others in an “I-it” way. The other way of being is what Martin Buber refers to as “I-Thou”: other people are people, with needs, hopes, cares, and concerns that are just as legitimate as our own. We see them as ends in and of themselves, rather than just as means to an end. We act for the sake of the Other, rather than for our own sake.
We initially might think that Emperor’s New Groove gives us a story of Kuzco and Pacha, who illustrate each of these two ways of being. But that’s where we’d be wrong. Because at the beginning of the movie, both Kuzco and Pacha are thoroughly enmeshed in an “I-It” way of being. People can engage in “I-it” relationships and still act nice, and be friendly towards others. Oftentimes, being nice to others is a way of leveraging their cooperation to advance our own concerns. Whether we are in an “I-it” way of being or not depends less on how we actually act, and more on how we see others while we act.
And Pacha, sure enough, did not see Kuzco as a person, and end in and of himself. He saw him as a threat (and legitimately so), an obstacle in the way of his domestic happiness. And so he offers to help Kuzco, but only at a price: Kuzco must first change his mind about his summer getaway home. He spends much of the first two thirds of the movie bargaining with Kuzco in order to achieve his own ends. This doesn’t mean that Pacha isn’t already a far better person than Kuzco — he regularly seeks out and rescues Kusco from danger, even when there is no perceived reward or transactional benefit.
But it does mean that Pacha, a character who is wholly good from beginning to end, finds himself also in need of repentance. He finds himself in need of moving from acting for the sake of self, to acting for the sake of the Other. He needs to move from I-It to I-Thou with respect to Kuzco. The climax of Pacha’s character development happens when he starts to see Kuzco as an end in and of himself, rather than a means to an end, or a threat to be ameliorated through transactional service or negotiation. He decides that he is going to save Kuzco’s life and return him to the palace whether or not Kuzco changes his mind about his summer home.
Think of it: How often do we serve others to advance our own interests, rather than acting for our own sake? How often do we treat others as means to an end, even when we do good things for them? If we knew up front that a less active member we serve will never return to church or appreciate our service, would we do it anyways? If we knew that a non-member family with never join the Church and always see it as cult-ish, would we continue inviting them to dinner and befriending them? If we know that our tireless service as parents or spouses will never be noticed or appreciated, do we resent it? And if we knew that the emperor would still bulldoze our ancestral home to build a summer getaway, would we still lead him back to his palace?
It’s a high moral demand to truly act for the sake of the other, and not to treat service to others and just one more way of serving ourselves. But this is, I believe, precisely what Christ did — He suffered for all men, not just those who repent. He endured immense suffering even for those He knew would reject Him. He tirelessly reaches out even when He knows, at time, that it is in vain. Because to Him, we are ends in and of ourselves, rather than merely means for advancing His own glory. We are worthy of service and sacrifice, even when we are engaged in the worst sort of cruelty. And so it is that Pacha learns that seeing Kuzco as a person means saving him, even if Kuzco continues to look with disdain upon him and his family.
And this then makes Kuzco’s character climax even more meaningful — it is not at all transactional when Kuzco lets the vial fall that would make him human once more, in order to save Pacha from death. He does it knowing that it would mean a life of being a llama. There is no self-interest in his final decision. He has come to see Pacha as a person, worthy of suffering and sacrifice to save, rather than a means to an end. For perhaps the first time in his life, he sets aside his own interests entirely, in order to live and act for the sake of another.
And this is in part because Pacha first demonstrated this same selfless love for him; just as Kuzco had never before seen others as people, so too had no one else treated him as a person. As emperor, he was always a means to someone else’s end, a threat to someone else’s interests (though never quite irrelevant). But once Pacha sliced through all of that by acknowledging Kuzco’s inherent worth — and not as a means to an end, but an end in and of himself — it gave him the footing he needed to begin seeing others the same way. And so it is that we learn to love God and others by first experiencing Christ’s transcendent love for us. Christ’s suffering on our behalf can save and redeem us, as we come to realize how deeply unworthy we are of it, and the fact that He gives it all the same.
What a refreshing message that is, and that is what makes the movie worth watching again — over and on top of all the hilarious jokes, bizarre fish imagery, and comedic, self-aware lampshading of obvious plot holes (“What are the chances that door would lead out here?” or “For the last time, we did not order a giant trampoline!”). It fascinates me that one of the most openly comedic Disney films — nearly every line of dialogue is some joke or another — is also one of its most morally textured animated films, full of insights on the depths of our need for repentance (for even the best among us).