Monday, April 9, 2012

The Sweatbox

Disney's 2000 animated feature, The Emperor's New Groove, while by no means a classic, was an enjoyable movie, refreshing and different at a time when Disney was stuck in a holding pattern. It turns out, though, that it could have been a very different movie, and that it came out the way that it did is quite surprising.

The Sweatbox is a fascinating documentary by Trudie Styler, chronicling the troubled production of The Emperor's New Groove, and the frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak that such a troubled production can cause. Styler is the wife of the musician Sting, who was brought on to compose six new songs for the film. She was granted permission to make an all access documentary on the making of the movie as part of the deal.

Disney certainly didn't have a clue that the production was going to be such a mess. The Emperor's New Groove was a completely different movie at that time, an animated epic called Kingdom of the Sun, to be co-directed by Roger Allers, one of the directors of The Lion King. David Spade still voiced a bratty emperor-turned-llama and Eartha Kitt was still the villain but those are just about the only similarities.

The early scenes of the film are interviews with Sting, animators, and Roger Allers, and there is an enthusiasm there. Allers has been guiding this production, the story was his baby. As months pass, though, the story never seems to crystallize, it sounds like it's kind of all over the place. Then comes the fateful day when an extremely rough cut of the film is to be shown to the head honchos. They tear it apart, saying they can't tell if it's a comedy or a drama, don't know what exactly it's about, and the only things they like are two of the songs.

I felt really bad for Roger Allers, who guided the project from its conception, for three years, only to be told to change everything into something completely unrecognizable. He can't be blamed for leaving the project, to be taken over by his co-director Mark Dindal, who reworked it into a lighter, goofier story.

Of course, the problem with that is, there's not really any place for Sting's songs now. Sting had never written songs for a movie like this, obviously, and his growing frustration with the studio is beginning to show. He didn't expect to be called back for new compositions time and time again over a period of years, interrupting his touring schedule and other projects. All this resulted in was a song in the end credits and a soundtrack CD full of songs that don't really resemble the movie.

There are several documentaries out there about troubled movie productions, and I always find them heartbreaking, but impossible to turn away from. Perhaps the most difficult to watch is Lost in La Mancha, the documentary about the aborted production of Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote movie, in which everything that could possible go wrong does. The Sweatbox is a little different, in that the filmmakers actually pulled through and made a decent movie.

The Sweatbox was never released by Disney, who retained the rights to it, but it did play at a film festival or two. I was surprised to find it had leaked onto Youtube. I'm honestly not sure if it's still up or if Disney has found out and pulled it down, but I bet if you look, it's out there somewhere. If you're in any way interested in seeing what goes into the making of a Disney film, and how much of their lives the people involved put into making just one, I recommend you hunt it down.


  1. I always liked Emperors new groove. I will also say I really enjoyed the animation style that Disney was employing in this and Atlantis, that kinda resembled the Clerks cartoon. I'm surprised to find out that it was this much of a hassle. I Think I'll take a look later.

    1. Atlantis actually looked the way it looked because it was designed by Hellboy creator Mark Mignola. He wasn't involved with this one but I could see the similarities.