There's been a resurgence of love and nostalgia for Disney's underrated gem The Emperor's New Groove. With its larger than life villain, nonstop comedy, and unique story, the adventures of Pacha and Kuzco seem like quintessential fare from the House of Mouse. With all those laughs on screen, it must have been a breeze for animators to get to the final product, right?
Well, according to a little-seen documentary film that gets an unprecedented look at Disney's animation process, the making of The Emperor's New Groove was an uphill battle not even a llama could surmount. The rare movie is called The Sweatbox, and, with never-before-seen access, it reveals what it was really like to work as a Disney animator toward the end of the Disney Renaissance.
Since The Sweatbox remains pretty hard to track down, here's a collection of the most shocking and informative tidbits it uncovers when Kingdom of the Sun became Emperor's New Groove.
A totally different story, Kingdom of the Sun, had been extensively storyboarded
It was 1994 when the director of The Lion King, Roger Allers, first approached then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner with "an Incan-themed original story." Eisner told Allers that his concept had "all the elements of a classic Disney movie." These elements included a memorable villain, good overcoming evil, and a soundtrack powered by a popular musician (in this case, Sting).
In the original story, the emperor (Manco) and a peasant (Pacha) look identical
The initial plot would have been very similar to Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper: when the greedy emperor (voiced by David Spade) meets his doppelgänger (voiced by Owen Wilson), they switch places for fun. When the evil witch Yzma (voiced by Eartha Kitt) discovers this swap, she turns the real emperor into a llama so she can succeed in her sinister plan to capture the sun.
Obsessed with youth, she believes total darkness will prevent her from forming wrinkles and forces Pacha to follow along lest she reveal his true identity. Meanwhile, the emperor-llama is busy learning humility from an eventual love interest/llama-herder (voiced by Laura Prepon), and they eventually team up to take on the wicked sorceress.
Kingdom of the Sun would have featured original music written by Sting
In fact, the only reason we know so much about this original production at all is because of Sting's involvement. As part of his contract, he demanded that his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, have access to the development process and create her own film about the experience.
What resulted was The Sweatbox, and it's a truly unsanitized look at the animator/executive dynamic that has produced so many hits for Disney. Because of its sometimes brutal honesty, The Sweatbox could not be widely released, and it was cut down to a very small (and Disney-approved) featurette for the DVD release of The Emperor's New Groove.
In the beginning, the director, animators, and Sting are thrilled to have creative freedom and throw themselves into the characters
At this point, Yzma would have been featured much more heavily, and the story would have been more traditionally dramatic and epic with comedic moments, in the same vein as The Lion King.
When the proud animators show their outlined creation to executives, things suddenly take a turn
At this time, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider the heads of animation both with theater backgrounds. As director, Roger Allers presents his pride and joy to them in a painstaking, sweat-inducing moment, he describes it like this:
"It's like having someone chop your hands off while standing in front of a crowd with your pants down. You're standing there with your stumps bleeding incapabable of pulling your pants back up. That's the experience of watching one of these movies."
At this point, the artists feel extremely vulnerable and begin to worry about the future of Kingdom of the Sun.
The executives essentially tear the film apart, saying the only things they like are two songs
Rumors begin to fly that the entire movie could be shelved. Everyone begins working overtime to re-envision what they thought was a fine-tuned story, and they come up with four options. In an act of desperation, they throw together a fifth "blue sky" variation that focuses much more on Manco's life as a llama with a bend toward slapstick comedy, but they don't think that such a story could really work.
In the end, the "blue sky" option is the one the executives choose
And the story begins to get overhauled to remove some of the original essential elements. No more identity swap. No more love story for Manco. And, ultimately, no more Sting.
The director blames himself, claiming that he tried to fit too many elements (mysticism, a funny villain, etc.) into what should have been a simple stew.
Major changes are made, and this leads to The Emperor's New Groove we know and love
Yzma gets reduced to a more minor character. She gets a companion, Kronk, who ends up adding the sought-after comic relief, and he begins to unexpectedly steal the show.
In fitting with the new comedic tone, the setting becomes closer to an Incan version of Las Vegas, rather than a straight-forward ancient village. With all the changes, Sting begins to get frustrated and most of his songs end up on the cutting room floor. This is when they bring in Tom Jones to record the big band number "Perfect World."
Lastly, Roger Allers gets replaced by another director, Mark Dindal, and he realizes that his vision will never come to fruition.
Though The Sweatbox does make a sympathetic case for the animators whose creativity is squashed, in the end, we still got an amazing movie out of what was surely a long, difficult process. The Emperor's New Groove remains one of my Disney favorites, but that doesn't mean it's not fascinating to get this once-in-a-lifetime glimpse behind the curtain.