From Disney Jail to ‘Emperor’s New Groove’: A Patrick Warburton Story
From getting locked up at the House of Mouse to shooting a pair of “horrible” films with Eartha Kitt in South Africa, the man behind Kronk has a lot of backstory to share.
When Patrick Warburton first started working on his audition for The Emperor’s New Groove, he had to start by asking himself a fundamental question: What, exactly, is a “Kronk”?
“Disney’s pretty secretive,” the actor told The Daily Beast during a recent interview ahead of the film’s 20th anniversary this week. “They don’t just hand out a whole script.”
And so, as the Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement alum looked at the audition scenes on the page—all exchanges between this mysterious character and his impossibly old yet undeniably glam overlord Yzma—it was up to him to figure out what the hell this guy was. As Warburton put it, “I wasn't sure whether he was a giant, a robot, some kind of a beast, or just a big guy. As it turns out he is just a big guy... a reticent henchman.”
Disney’s boisterous, “booyah”-filled epic might not have been a box office sensation when it first debuted in 2000, but its staying power is undeniable. Fans have basically forced the oddball comedy into the canon of Disney classics through sheer force of will—and a tsunami of quotes and memes. Kronk, whose naïveté is matched only by his love for cooking spinach puffs, is their dim-witted patron saint. After all, who wouldn’t love a twentysomething beefcake assistant whose chief passions in life include chatting up squirrels, taking over diner kitchens, and interrupting evil plans to ensure there’s time for dessert. (“And coffee?”)
“It was fun to explore what he sounded like,” Warburton said. “Oftentimes in the early days, I would always think about doing things the ‘right’ way. And then all of a sudden, you know, that was my light bulb moment... There isn't a right way; the right way is the creative way, your way.”
“So when I looked at a Kronk, I thought, ‘Well, he’s big, he’s a henchman, but he likes to cook. Instead of making him dark, or like that...” the actor said, putting on a raspy, conniving voice, “... I just decided to bring the voice down here.” Cue that lovably oafish warble.
There’s a bit of irony about Warburton playing a key role in a Disney film—given that at the age of 18, he got thrown in Disney jail after he and a friend decided to dismount the park’s PeopleMover mid-ride. “That place is like Logan’s Run,” the actor quipped. “They’ve got cameras everywhere.” Thankfully for us all, doing hard time in Mickey and Minnie’s playground evidently does not preclude a professional relationship with the House of Mouse.
Warburton’s Disney jail stint aside, his New Groove appearance—and the success of the film-turned-franchise—is surprising for another reason entirely: The movie fans fell in love with is almost unrecognizable from its initial concept, which did not include a “Kronk” of any kind. As noted in an excellent Polygon retrospective, the film was originally planned as a far more sincere musical feature titled Kingdom of the Sun, modeled after the success of Disney’s epic The Lion King with music by Sting. (Filmmaker Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, documented the nightmarish production process in the documentary The Sweatbox.)
Whatever Sting and original director Roger Allers might think of the final product, Kronk is a key ingredient to The Emperor’s New Groove’s magic formula. A good-hearted middle ground between the earnest villager Pacha (John Goodman) and comically reprehensible characters like Yzma and pre-epiphany Kuzco, Kronk grows as a character more than almost anyone, second only to the emperor-turned-llama himself. And most importantly, the lovable lug’s relationship with his spindly overlord, Yzma—voiced to velvety, evil-diva perfection by the incomparable purr of Eartha Kitt—is odd-couple perfection.
Yzma and Kronk’s off-balance dynamic, Warburton notes, was a little bit of “animated art imitating life.” He worked with Kitt on one of his earliest jobs as an actor—a pair of films titled Dragonard, which filmed in South Africa in the late ’80s. Kitt played the head of the bordello that rescues his character after he gets “beaten half to death.” (“There’s this horrible, ridiculous scene where I’m in a bathtub and there’s, like, 10 women bathing me,” Warburton recalled with visible amusement, adding that he’s pretty sure the films never made the jump from VHS to DVD.) After the films had wrapped, the actor recalls meeting Kitt in her room after a performance at the Roosevelt Hotel—and realizing very quickly just how out of his depth he was as a still-wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old.
“She excuses her butler or whatnot,” Warburton said. “She’s sitting on one end of the couch, petting a furry animal. I know it was either a cat or a dog, but to this day, I can’t tell you what it was because it was just a ball of fur. And it was so Yzma-ish. ‘Dahling, I’m so glad you came to see me, how are you?’” After about 10 minutes, he said, “I just felt like we had very little in common, and I was in way out of my league.” So he excused himself and left. Now, decades later, Warburton can’t help but laugh at the similar dynamics between himself and Kitt, and their characters.
Whatever the reason for this winningly weird comedy’s enduring success, its staying power is undeniable. Even Warburton’s sons Talon, 28, and Gabriel, 19, who join the call to discuss how their dad’s career and his grooviest movie inspired their own forays into acting, can name all the fan-favorite quotes by heart—because even they hear them getting quoted back all the time. In fact, all three Warburtons took turns rattling them off during our Zoom call: “Right, the poison, the poison for Kuzco”; “squeakity, squeak, squeak”; “Yzma, put your hands in the air!”
Both sons can do a mean Kronk impersonation—although Talon notes with humorous frustration that he lost out on a voice-match gig for Amazon impersonating his own father. “I’m like, are you serious?” he said. “Who can do a better dad than me?!”
“It was me,” Gabriel said in that deep, doofy tone without missing a beat. “I got the role.”
“You little bastard!”
At this point, the Warburton clan has become something of an acting dynasty; Patrick’s mother, Barbara Lord, was a professional actress before stepping back from the industry to raise four children—although even then, she continued to do community theater. Talon began acting around five years ago, while Gabriel got his start about a year and a half ago. Warburton just hopes that their lineage—and, yes, their ability to do that voice—doesn’t limit their opportunities to branch out. “Talon does a fun impression, as does Gabriel,” he said. “But that’s a gag... They’re both so different and so diversified, so I hope it doesn’t become a burden for them.”
Still, both Talon and Gabriel appreciate being part of that legacy. Gabriel spent his toddling years watching Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, in which his father played the blowhard astronaut—and yelling at his dad every time he did the voice—only to find himself, years later, realizing he wanted to carry on the family legacy while attending a studio taping of Rules of Engagement.
As for why Emperor’s New Groove, in particular, has become such a big and enduring part of that legacy, Talon offers a theory: “Each character is so original,” he said. “The puzzle that is that movie, everything interlocks so well... We’re ’90s kids. It matched our humor, it matched the style of what we grew up with... It’s our childhood.”
That’s one take. Here’s another from Kronk himself: “I remember meeting some kids from UCLA,” Warburton said. “They approached me... to let me know that during their semester, The Emperor’s New Groove was the No. 1 movie they got high to. And I thought that was wonderful.”
Note: This article has been amended to correctly state Roger Allers’ name, which was originally published as Robert Allers.