If you have a chance to see The Sweatbox, the inside, non-Disney created documentary of the painful making of The Emperor's New Groove, run -- don't walk -- to see it! Eric Lurio reports.
For the last dozen years or so, the book publishing division of the Walt Disney company has been putting out high-class art books celebrating each and every one of its "classic" animated features. That is, all except one: The Emperors New Groove.
Well, theres a reason for that. The films creation was a mess. Not just that, but a scandalous one as well. The production imploded after the animation had already begun, leaving bad feelings all around and the film getting almost none of the hoopla A-level Disney toons generally get. Moreover, while initial box office was slow (the opening did worse than any Disney animated feature had done since The Rescuers Down Under a whole decade before), the film did eventually accumulate a respectable b.o. figure and has done well in home videostill at the time it was perceived by the studio and industry to be a failureIt wasn't the Lion King blockbuster that Disney had hoped for and was used to after a string of phenomenal hits.
How Did This Come To Be?
Just the thing for a juicy documentary and thanks to the miracle of contractual obligation, we've got one! Running 86 minutes, The Sweatbox was recently shown at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, which I attended. Why did a documentary about a film which debuted on December 15, 2000 just come out? It was supposed to have originally come out in February of 2001. To spend a year and a half on a shelf is no mystery. What's surprising is that it came out at all.
The fear was that it would have been quite embarrassing for the Mouse to have its dirty laundry aired out in public. Hell, for those of us who follow these things, The Emperor's New Groove was already an embarrassment. It was dumped. A documentary about a film that the Mouse gave a bare minimum of support to when it came out? Get real!
Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, was given the job of writing six songs for what was then called Kingdom of the Sun. As part of the deal, he got Disney to agree to let his wife Trudie Styler, and co-director, co-producer John-Paul Davidson, do the making of featurette through her company Xingu Films.
Most in the animation industry who knew about this project were of the belief that this footage would never see the light of day, especially after the "Collectors Edition" DVD came out and the words "Kingdom of the Sun" were nowhere to be seen.
But here we are and here it is. Everything we hoped it would be. The kind of thing weve seen in the third disc of Cleopatra or Lawrence of Arabia. The stuff you shell out the extra twenty bucks for.
The format is what youd expect. Interviews with director Roger Allers and animation chief Thomas Schumacher, discussing the story and praising each other to the skies. But were forewarned that somethings going to be amiss, when at the opening sequence at the premier, Sting, Schumacher and a number of other people discuss what a painful experience it all has been. The happiest place in town? I think not.
Co-director Mark Dindal then became the only director and hurried through ENG in one and a half years a record for a Disney Feature. Randy Fullmer was the producer that stuck with the project from beginning to end and faced such difficult moments as telling Sting his years of hard work would be thrown out.
What makes this a must for animation fans is the artwork. We actually see parts of Kingdom of the Sun. The interviews are inter-cut with rough, and in some cases finished, animation. Stuff we never, EVER thought wed ever see. The film was supposed to be a musical, with Eartha Kitt playing the villain Yzma, who was drawn by the always brilliant Andreas Deja, who shows us how he acts with a pencil. The style of the film is very different from that which those of us who saw the finished film remember. Then theres Owen Wilson voicing the peasant Pacha and David Spade playing Emperor Manco. However, we begin to notice flaws, which prove fatal later on. Sting complains about the lack of a script from which to work.
Then Styler and Davidson give us a treat. A nearly full musical number going back and forth between Ms. Kitt in the sound booth and the animated scene. Both are brilliant and this is Deja at his best. In this, what might be the only completely finished sequence of the original version of the film, a plant is poisoned by Yzma. It looks like Mel Blanc doing an exhausted model T Ford in an old Warner Bros. cartoon, which is kind of weird considering all that talk about the epic nature of the film...hmmm As the brass go into the screening room to see the finished story reel with about 20% finished animation, we see the beginning of the film and listen to the various members of the crew worry about whether they will keep their jobs.
Deep Behind The Scenes
If this were a featurette found on a DVD wed know theyd be joking, but this time its serious. The other senior directors leave their projects to try to figure out how to save the movie. This means possibly junking the story entirely. Should Manco be removed from the story? Should the love story between Pacha and Nina be thrown out? Should the locale be moved to Nebraska and the llamas become sheep?
Allers gives the viewer a wistful soliloquy as he explains that hes quitting the project hes been working on for years, rather than continue on a pared down story that Chris Williams and co-director Mark Dindal come up with.
The scene where Stings informed all his hard work has been for naught is a bit disappointing, as its set in the studio and Stings on the other side of the phone. Wed been promised in the scant publicity material that wed see his reaction. Still, we see producer Randy Fullmer, forever the diplomat, wriggling in his seat as he delivers the news to the superstar.
The second part of the movie is about The Emperors New Groove, and how they did a three-year project in only half that time. Whats interesting here is the comparison of style. Having just seen forty minutes of Kingdom of the Sun the change of style is really jarringly black and white. Its quite clear that this is not the same movie at all.
Sting doesnt really want to be on the project any more, as hes now working on an album and on tour. But, a true professional, he perseveres. He only threatens to quit once, and is mollified by a major change in the movie's ending, which everyone agrees is an improvement.
From initial "research" trips to Peru, rough sketches, long discussions of color palate and backgrounds, the film wraps up with all aspects of the crew now at double time, on a mission to finish the project. We see that it all somehow comes together.
The Truth Is
All in all, the whole thing is shown to be a bit chaotic, but the simple fact is, this isnt anti-Disney at all. Indeed, its quite positive. The Disney process stands up under the film's scrutiny. The opportunity to see the process at work, the continual collaboration, makes this film very worthwhile. While we know this isn't their typical experience, we see the workings of a well-oiled machine that, once put in drive, can deliver.
And this is exactly the kind of thing were looking for in those hideously expensive art books. Had this been one, it would have been the best of the series. The tragedy is that while this should be a vital part of any Disney-philes video collection (preferably on "Walt Disney Treasures: Behind The Scenes At The Walt Disney Studio"), chances are that its only going to be in a couple of film festivals and vanish into the ether. What a bummer because it is a treat!
Eric Lurio is a New York-based cartoonist and writer who has written extensively on animation for several years. His articles have appeared in Animation Magazine, Animation Blast, Animation Planet and Animefantastique.