Disney Disney Animation Editorials/Opinions

The Sweatbox Or (The True Story Behind ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’)

When The Emperor’s New Groove was released, it didn’t perform as well as many of the previous Disney films from the nineties. But over the years it has become a cult classic to many people of my generation due to it’s sharp comedic script. Aided by the hilarious performances of David Spade, Patrick Warburton and the late Eartha Kitt. It has an endless number of quotable moments and has spawned numerous memes. However, the film was almost an entirely different beast to begin with and despite being a slapstick comedy had one of the most dramatic and stressful productions for the studio.

In 1994, after the success of The Lion King Roger Allers the director of that film was approached to pitch a new film based on Incan culture. It was called Kingdom of the Sun and revolved around a Prince and the Pauper type of story. Where a selfish prince (voiced by Spade) switches places with a peasant (Who would’ve been voiced by Owen Wilson) who looks identical to him. Later after discovering the switch Yzma (voiced by Kitt) turns the real prince into a Llama and forces the fake to do her bidding while she simultaneously attempts to destroy the sun which she blames for her aging.

While it had been reported that the production on Kingdom of the Sun wasn’t the smoothest, the full extent of the drama wasn’t revealed to the public until 2012. That was when someone leaked online a 2002 documentary called The Sweatbox.

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When Allers started working on Kingdom he approached acclaimed musician Sting to create songs for the film just as Elton John had done so successfully with, The Lion King. Sting agreed to the project with the condition that his wife filmmaker Trudie Styler be allowed to document the production. Disney agreed although they would probably come to regret that decision.

At first things seemed to be going well – if you watch the documentary you can see the passion everyone has for the film: the animators discussing their excitement for the characters, Allers’ emotional attachment to the film. However, when it came down to having an early test screening for the higher ups, they didn’t get the reaction they hoped for. The producers heavily criticized the early version of the film which they felt was becoming too dramatic and not fun enough for a Disney film. They also felt there were too many plotlines going on in the film from The Prince and the Pauper switch to Yzma’s desire to destroy the sun and two romance subplots. The filmmakers were asked to simplify the film which they agreed to do but after a while it soon became apparent that the producers still weren’t satisfied, and people were starting to become impatient.

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It is heartbreaking to watch the documentary because you go from seeing everyone excited to seeing animators being told their work won’t be used. Or that it will be changed drastically. Eventually Allers realized his vision for the film clearly wasn’t what Disney wanted respectfully parted ways and was replaced with Mark Dindal. The film was then reworked completely only really keeping the elements that the producers had seem to enjoy namely Spade and Kitt’s performances. But gone was The Prince and Pauper storyline, as was the romantic subplots and Yzma’s attempts to destroy the sun. The film became a straight slapstick comedy meant to be inspired by old Chuck Jones cartoons and buddy comedy movies.

Meanwhile Sting was still capturing all this drama on film and became quite annoyed himself. Originally hired to write several songs for the film, by the end, after all the changes he was told by the filmmakers that they really only needed two songs from him. And one ended up being sung by Tom Jones at the beginning of the movie. Sting only ended recording the song “My Funny Friend and Me” which played over the credits and also was later nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars.

Despite his frustration with the process, Sting did ultimately enjoy the final product after it was shown to him. But not all of the work was thrown out. Some of the songs Sting wrote for the original version of the film were still included in the soundtrack. For example, there was one song featuring Yzma singing about her plan to destroy the sun, as well as a love song which would’ve been between the fake prince and his fiancé. Because that romantic element of the film was removed, the latter had to be taken out.

Now, despite everything turning into a mess, Disney never once told Sting and his wife to stop filming the process. As a result, they turned the footage into the documentary and was screened it only once in 2002 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shortly after, Disney ensured it was buried and never spoken of again.

Ten years later, however, it mysteriously found its way online. While it’s broken up into parts and with a smaller aspect ratio to avoid a copyright claim from Disney, you can still find the documentary today.

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The Sweatbox is a fascinating and rare inside look into the process of making an animated film. Although they don’t usually become as messy as what was once Kingdom of the Sun, it is a reminder that the profession of animators is not an easy one. You can spend years working on something and then be told it has to be cut. Now, I’m not sure if this is a hot take or not, but personally I do think Disney ultimately made the right decision for the film. While I don’t doubt that Kingdom of the Sun would’ve looked beautiful. I kind of agree that it seemed like it’s plot was a little too stuffed. The Disney renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s definitely peaked with The Lion King. Afterwards films like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame felt like they were trying to replicate that epic scale and couldn’t quite reach it. I feel Kingdom would’ve suffered the same fate where it would’ve been remembered as one of the films trying a little too hard to reach the highs of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

In the end, what made The Emperor’s New Groove stand out – and why it’s remembered so fondly today – is the fact that it isn’t an epic dramatic musical. It was fun movie with really well written humor that still has such emotion and heart. So, while it may not have been the “classic” film Disney originally set out to make, it’s still a classic in its own right. Whether Disney wants to admit it or not, The Sweatbox solidifies that.

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