Documentary Review: Deconstructing the “old” Disney Way — “The Sweatbox” and the making of “Emperor’s New Groove”

A friend posted a Facebook link to a New York mag Vulture column, “An Oral History of Disney’s ‘The Emperor’s New Groove'” the other day, and that got me feeling nostalgic, remembering when Disney had a Feature Animation Florida division in Orlando, where “Mulan,” “John Henry,” “Lilo & Stitch” and “Brother Bear” were largely animated.

And I remembered Disney’s downbeat and little-seen documentary about how a planned animated musical epic “Kingdom of the Sun” became a rush-romp do over, “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

The Sweatbox” showed at a couple of film festivals, including the hometown Florida Film Festival. It’s largely the basis for the Vulture piece, with a healthy dose of post-mortem embellishment from a few of those who lived through what was the tail end of a glorious era for Disney Animation.

The deal was that Disney’s “Lion King” director Roger Allers was offered the chance to make a film built on ancient South American culture, and settled on the Incas and a “Prince & the Pauper” story starring the voices of David Spade, Owen Wilson and Eartha Kitt. Sting was carefully courted to create the music for this epic, sort of his chance to do “what Elton John had done with ‘The Lion King.'”

And a part of that deal included Sting’s wife Trudi Styler, who would get to film a “making of” documentary about the process– with her natural access to her husband’s process, his collaboration, and unprecedented access to Disney Animation’s process and creators.

Disney learned with “Beauty and the Beast,” which they showed as a rough cut to critics and audiences at the New York Film Festival a few years prior, that people LOVED seeing how the magic was made in the hand-drawn (with digital assistance) animation style.

So just as “Kingdom” could be seen as a natural progression coming from a studio that mined Native American culture for “Pocahontas” and Chinese legend for “Mulan,” giving Styler & Co. access wasn’t so terribly out of the ordinary.

But as “The Sweatbox” makes clear and the Vulture article makes even clearer, “Kingdom” lost its way and went wrong in ways Disney cartoons almost never do. They all but started from scratch and rebuilt the damned thing in a rushed year and a half (not one year, as in the Vulture article) to try and meet their release date.

And the film, with Happy Meal tie-ins, evolved into a light and light-on-its-feet comedy, “The Emperor’s New Groove,” released to decent-enough box office in 2000, but a picture that grew fans exponentially once it hit DVD. It’s OK, but far from the studio’s best in that “Little Mermaid/Brother Bear” run of “traditional” animation hits.

Still, I rewatched “The Sweatbox,” a film Disney has never released to theaters or on video, but which is on and off Youtube in various states of polish.

As fascinating as it is to see the bruised egos in mid-bruising, it’s also a nostalgia trip for anybody deep into Disney animation of that era.

Sting smiles wistfully at “Kingdom,” which was “destroyed in ten minutes” at a meeting after a screening in the “sweatbox” (animation dept. theater) “by the very entertaining deconstructionist(s) who run the place.”

We see that meeting, and remember the role Disney’s team of Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher played at the studio during those glory years. They were witty, almost-interchangeable musical theater folk who oversaw a glorious run of cartoons that revived the movie musical. And they’re the ones who said of “Kingdom,” “It’s not working.”

These guys were the best in the business, the real geniuses behind that run, and having both of them in a room with the creative staff telling them to start over must have been a gut punch for the ages.

“The Sweatbox” doesn’t have the clarity of the Vulture piece in breaking down just how much had to change, how quickly and at what emotional cost — although each of those topics is addressed.

There’s a lot of Sting’s lost (in the vault) music, either in rough form with him doing the vocals in his home studio, or with the fabulous Eartha Kitt belting through this and (in the final cut) Tom Jones belting through that. Seeing and hearing the former bassist for The Police self-consciously ripping off Lerner and Lowe’s “Why Can’t the English?” from “My Fair Lady” for a “Why can’t humans be more like rocks?” is just precious.

And here’s animator Andreas Deja, smiling and suffering through what Disney was doing with his creation, Yzma — Kitt’s character — as she grew and shrank in importance as the film was retooled and remade into a buddy comedy with Spade and co-star John Goodman (replacing Owen Wilson). Deja lived in Orlando for a while, working at the Disney World studio, turning the state’s omnipresent geckos into “Stitch” among his other inspired creations.

There are story flow and coherence issues that may have given Disney pause about releasing “The Sweatbox.” But there’s also the “We messed up and don’t want to remember that” element to it. Still, it’s not a “banned” film as such. At this point, it’s just that the only people who’d want to see it or own it (Disney “completists”) have already seen it online. “Sweatbox” makes more sense watching it after reading the Vulture “oral history.”

The Vulture piece just adds to the number of theories about why this film went wrong, and gives no clue about why “Emperor’s New Groove” enjoys cult status — “Generational thing?” Disney had a talent drain, led by Jeffrey Katzenberg’s defection to start Dreamworks, etc. Allers got lost in all the elements he kept adding to the picture, everybody got too wedded to the idea that they’d be working with Sting, Sting got started on the music before the story was locked my and burned-out, etc.

Here’s my contribution to that discussion. A couple of years later, when “Brother Bear” came out, I got to talk with Phil Collins. He did the music for that and had earlier done a masterful re-invent-the-animated musical turn with his songs (which he sang) in “Tarzan,” which came out in 1999.

Collins related to me how Sting had called him, curious about what working with the Mouse was like, maybe getting an early vibe that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as he hoped.

Phil gave him the lowdown on composing and recomposing songs for Disney to get them to work within the movie. Years of that, sometimes. And then, Collins says, there was this pause on the phone, and Sting says “Well, F—K that. I finish a song, it’s finished!” And Phil says to himself, “Uh-oh, Mate…”

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for brief strong language

Cast: Sting, David Spade, Eartha Kitt, Roger Allers, Andreas Deja, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider.

Credits: Directed by Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson. A Disney (not quite) release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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