In the summer of 1941, at the request of the US government, Walt and a group of animators and story people took off on a good will tour of South America. The trip took them through the heart of the Inca empire, including Peru, where my wife and I recently visited. The group collected stories literature, music and customs and sketched people, clothing, buildings, animal scenes and landscapes, in addition to learning about folklore and music. Back then, the trip yielded two shorts, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Almost 60 years later, the Studio’s 40th animated feature would dig more deeply into the ancient world of the Inca in The Emperor’s New Groove. My wife and I explored parts of Peru, which was the center of the great Inca Empire, which spread across all the places “El Groupo” visited. Based on my ten day visit the Disney artists and director Mark Dindal nailed, not only the look of Groove, but captured the essence of the Inca world and its culture.
The beginning of the film, where Kuzco impresses on us that the story is about him, is not so far from the truth. The Sapa Inca, official title of the Incan Emperor, was considered a god whose power derived, not only, from his parentage, but from his religious status as son of the powerful “Inti”, the Sun god. So Kuzco’s attitudes are not far from the bizarre, royal world inhabited by the Inca emperors where everything they touched, wore or didn’t eat was ritualistically burned each year.
The Emperor would have been carried everywhere by bearers, even after death. His mummified remains would have continued to be carried during annual festivals like the Inti Raymi or Sun festival we saw in the city of Cusco. Kronk carries Yzma, the “new Emperor”, everywhere in a litter emblazoned with a snake, which eventually takes flight like a condor. The Snake and Condor both, we’ll see in a minute, are tied to Inca social and religious beliefs. And the chair inside the litter sports a diamond design that is still found on fabrics hand made by Inca descendants.
Pacha’s willingness to drop everything, trek to the palace, then, without question, hand over his family land to Kuzco is perfectly in line with the Inca culture. He doesn’t go just because the Emperor calls, but he demonstrates an example of the Inca practice of mit’a. Instead of giving money for taxes (the Inca functioned on the bartering system, no money) each Inca man and woman was obligated to give time each year to the state by doing things like farming, weaving, building or fighting in the army. It’s been described as one day for me and one day for the State or my neighbor. In return, the State would make sure everyone was clothed, fed and protected and your neighbor would help you when you were in need. Someone like Pacha would regularly leave his family farm to work communal farms needed to feed the royals and their relations, or perhaps build new cities.
Kuzco, however, embraces the opposite of the Inca’s Golden Rule, which is still widely repeated in the Andes: ana sua, ana llula, ama cheklla. It translates to “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. Pacha’s attitudes toward Kuzco over the course of their adventures, even though the Emperor demonstrates neither honesty nor gratitude, on the other hand, make perfect sense in the context of that Golden Rule.
Visually, the film is full of Inca symbolism, architecture and references to daily life. The first thing I can tell you about the world of the Incas, is STEPS. We hiked part of the “Inca Trail”, visited many historically significant sights including Machu Picchu. Everywhere we went required climbing stairs. And these stairs aren’t the nice even, regular rises we are used to. Instead clearing areas to make steps, the way we would today, the Incas, to their credit, simply adapted existing landscapes. This often means steps like this:
followed by a distance that could be flat, but might rise or fall steeply, followed by more steps and then more steps. We see the ubiquitous steps around Kuzco’s throne, as Pacha climbs up to the palace entrance and when Kronk carries Kuzco, as a llama in the sack.
Incas did indeed build some of their most amazing cities, like Machu Picchu in the craziest places – often at the top or on a mountainside. Pacha’s village sits on a mountain top.
As Pacha enters the palace we see the Andean cross which has many parallel meanings and exhibits the way Incas used the power of three or “threeology” in their thinking, buildings and religion. Toward the end of the film, when Yzma holds “the” vial, you can see three steps behind her. Inca historical sites are full of the “threes” as in the Andean Cross.
The gold that adorned Inca palaces and sacred sites like Kuzco’s palace was confirmed by accounts written by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. In fact, the Incas didn’t value gold or silver as a source of wealth, but as decoration for buildings, clothing and other items.
Doors and windows, especially in highly sacred or royal architectures have a distinct trapezoidal shape as we can see in the movie buildings as well.
There’s not a lot of actual eating in the movie, other than spinach puffs discussions, and it’s unclear how much llama meat was eaten by the Incas. So Kuzco in llama form might not have been on the menu. But, his wool would have been used for clothing, hides for shoes, and he would have hauled goods. And, oh, he might have been used for ritual sacrifice. Today, there are 16 protected llamas that roam the grounds of Machu Picchu. Unlike Kuzco, they are friendly and seem to mostly ignore photo hungry tourists.
In addition to being able to build fantastic cities in the most remote and inaccessible places, the Inca were masters of urban design. The Inca cities not only supported thousands of people, but included plumbing in the form of aqueducts. All of the aqueducts and flowing water we see in the movie are still evident and working at many Inca sites today, hundreds of years after they were designed and built. Some were used to provide drinking water.
Some were used to drain off potential flooding rains like the one Kronk throws Kuzco into and others were used to move irrigation water.
Based on what our Peruvian guides told us, there are, however, some misfires in The Groove. No women, other than perhaps the queen (Inca rulers had many wives. Some of the rulers had as many as 100 children) would have had positions of power or decision making. Sorry Yzma. But she wouldn’t have come anywhere near the throne.
Next is Pacha’s cart. No one has been able to definitively prove how the Inca managed to move the enormous stones that make up sites like the ceremonial sites of Sacsayhuaman or Ollantytambo and piece them together perfectly with no mortar.
Some say they simply used manpower and logs to roll the stones quarried from many miles away. Others look to the stars and believe ancient aliens assisted. Either way, the Inca did not have access to the wheel so there wouldn’t have been a cart. Pacha would have just tied the sack holding Kuzco to his llama.
I find myself laughing throughout the Emperor’s New Groove. It’s a classic buddy movie filled with snappy dialogue, crazy situations and unique characters. No one gets hurt, there’s a happy ending and the movie is filled with subtle, but, accurate representations of the Inca people and their world.
The time I spent in Peru allowed me to see and learn about a culture that encompassed a vast , well organized, culturally rich empire, populated by people skilled in astronomy, architecture, agriculture and economics. I also found their descendants to be warm, welcoming and proud to help me learn about their history.