Contrary to what the title might imply, this is not a retelling of the classic fairy tale. Instead, it is a historical spoof on "what if" Napoleon Bonaparte had actually escaped from his island prison. Based on a novel by Simon Leys, the story is rather slow moving but is ultimately satisfying. It's a clever idea with an excellent cast, including Ian Holm (Lord of the Ring's Bilbo Baggins) in the lead, playing both Napoleon and his look-alike imposter.
The time is after the fall of Napoleon's armies at the battle of Waterloo and the once-great emperor is now imprisoned on a British-governed island, unhappy with his life, warily wishing he might once more enter France, and having to deal with his fellow prisoners of war -- his generals. Josephine is of course gone, and Napoleon's son has been "seduced" with the wealth and riches offered to a young man of his upstanding character. As a result, the emperor is now alone. He longs for the battle glory which once covered him and with the aid of his closest friends and allies, comes up with a brilliant scheme. They will find a look-alike to impersonate him, and he will be smuggled into Paris, where the imposter will reveal himself and the French people will rise up for their newly returned monarch.
Congratulating himself on the brilliance of this scheme, his proposed imposter is brought forth -- a lowly man of no background or breeding, who has long served as a scrub man on a ship. Once Napoleon dons his impoverished identity, the emperor discovers life as a lowly cad is not as easy as he once believed. Forced to do without being pampered, bowed to, or flattered with insincere attentions, his plans go wrong. The ship does not put in at France, but instead continues on to another port. From there he must work his way to Paris, taking the common coach (full of all sorts of displeasing people), and pass the battlefield at Waterloo, which was his greatest disgrace. He begins to learn that the name of "Napoleon" is either worshiped or scorned. People whom he has never known claim to have been great allies of the former emperor. Others spit at the mention of his name. He reaches Paris under some duress and is sent to the home of someone who can help him until the imposter reveals his true identity.
What Napoleon finds instead is that the poor wretch is dead, leaving a widow and adopted child in financial duress. They remain in the care of Dr. Lambert, a local medical practitioner who makes his meager earning by tending the ill among Paris' lower quarters. Nichole "Pumpkin" Truchaut at first mistrusts the guest she unwillingly takes under her roof, but slowly comes to respect him. There is a certain sense of empowerment about this aging man; he can lift the spirits of those around him with rousing speeches and well-executed "battle plans." Dr. Lambert, both out of jealousy on the part of Pumpkin's affection for her newfound friend and houseguest, and suspicion toward the man's uncanny likeness to Bonaparte, seeks to drive them apart -- or prove the man mad. In the meantime, Napoleon grows tired of his charade, but can do nothing until his counterpart Eugene Lenormand reveals himself. As for Eugene? He's enjoying writing "his" racy memoirs, being petted and pampered, and scorning at the lower classes far too much to even consider telling the truth. His word reigns supreme on the island, and anyone who dares speak a whisper against him is promptly carted off as a "lunatic."
As you can imagine, what unfolds is hilarity mixed with a good blend of satire and a few meager twists. The film relies more on the charisma of its actors and the unusual storyline to please, rather than going in for a lot of action or plot twists. We all know what will happen in the end, but the point is enjoying ourselves while getting there. In this means, The Emperor's New Clothes does please the viewer to a certain degree, though it embraces a few ideals and morals I wasn't overly excited with. The real pleasure is the chemistry between Ian Holm and Iben Hjejle, who plays Pumpkin. Though the movie seems a little strange in its pursuit of a romance between two people of such vastly different ages, Holm's Napoleon is so likable you think little of it, much like Colonel Brandon and Marianne in Sense & Sensibility. Unlike the latter film, this one is set in France. I'm sure you know to what I allude; marriage comes later, if at all.
The film is rated only PG and not even for mild sensuality, but there are several scenes where Pumpkin and Napoleon are shown curled up in the same bed; it's implied they go on living together. There's no other sensuality aside from a "racy" passage a bookshop owner reads from the "fake" Napoleon's memoirs. (We hear part of this passage dictated earlier in the script.) It references Napoleon's "seduction" of the Polish princess, but isn't terribly bawdy. There are several chest-up shots of Ian Holm bathing but nothing explicit. The rating comes from brief mind language -- one d*mn, one mild abuse of deity, and one anatomical reference. (Though I have to admit, in its context due to what happens next, it's hilarious rather than offensive.) There is also some bathroom humor; one man farts and complains of bowl problems; another doctor talks briefly about digestive tracts, and we hear Napoleon urinating on a tree.
No movie is perfect, but some of the brighter aspects of this film make up for flaws. The torment Napoleon endures when he discovers what his name truly means -- that hundreds of men have gone mad under the delusion that they are Napoleon. His success in turning Pumpkin's fruit stand into a thriving and prosperous neighborhood business. When they first sit together on the roof and watch an incoming storm. There are some unexplained mysteries, but the film is fairly family-friendly and comical enough to warrant a few laughs. Ian Holm turns in a beautiful performance, although -- and I hate to admit this, but... he'll always be a hobbit to me.