If you’re no stranger to Disney home media, then you’re aware of the cute things they’ll put in their DVDs. You’ll get the film’s trailers, interviews with the cast, commentaries, and occasionally a documentary on the film’s production. These documentaries are a classic way to promote the production of a movie, and they usually highlight the glamorous and fun parts of making it. But what if I told you that there was a documentary that Disney didn’t want you to see? A documentary that didn’t shy away from the warts and struggles that come with making a movie? That film would be The Sweatbox, which chronicled the production of a project titled Kingdom of the Sun, which would later transform into The Emperor’s New Groove.
Like all movies, The Emperor’s New Groove started as an idea. Way back in 1994 Roger Allers, having just finished directing a little film called The Lion King, began working on a script. At the time, Disney executives were pushing for more culturally diverse stories (leading to such films as Aladdin, Pocahontas and later Mulan), so the idea of a film with an Incan background seemed like another great idea.
The story of Kingdom of the Sun follows a young llama herder with big dreams named Pacha and the emperor Manco Capac, who just wants to go out and have some fun without the watchful eyes of Yzma, the high priestess. After the two discover each other, Pacha offers to trade places with Manco for a night. But Yzma, who has been plotting to kill Manco for a ritual to restore her youth, catches him and accidentally gives him llama-potion instead of poison. Now the emperor is stuck as a llama and a llama herder is stuck playing the part of the emperor. The rest of the film chronicles their various hijinks, one learning humility, both finding love, and it all finishes off with a god of darkness being lassoed and destroyed.
While the elements that end up becoming The Emperor’s New Groove can be found in this initial plot, the film ends up bearing more of a resemblance to stories such as The Prince and the Pauper, as well as various nods to other Incan folk stories and mythology. And much in the style of Allers’ previous Disney hit, The Lion King, a big-name musician was hired to help with the soundtrack of the film. Enter Sting. But Sting wanted something else out of involvement and a paycheck; he wanted a documentary on the project to be made with his wife, Trudie Styler, in the director’s chair. Thus, production on The Sweatbox began.
Allers stated in an interview with The Vulture. “We met with Sting at his home in England which is sort of near Stonehenge. I met his wife Trudie. They were very gracious people. Pretty shortly after that, Trudie came up with the idea of doing a documentary about Sting’s experience on a Disney film. She and her filmmaker J.P. Davidson would come periodically and canvass us, film things, interview people. They got to watch the whole up and down of the movie.”
From an outsider, this sounds like an interesting setup for a documentary. See how a film can start in one direction and end in a completely different one, there’s potential for sure. So here’s the big question, why did Disney shelve this film that was practically ready to print and release? Well, the answers lie in the production story itself. How did Kingdom of the Sun become The Emperor’s New Groove?
Aller’s initial story was a light hearted but ambitious, large scaled film. And Disney was dragging its feet after the big scaled box office failures that were Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After those two movies lead with disappointing releases, the studio executives wanted to bring in a second director. Enter Mark Dindal, who had just come off of directing the musical Cats Don’t Dance, as co-director. Dindal’s vision of the film was to lean more into the comedy elements while Aller tried to stick with the more epic and wider scaled themes. Many of the story artists felt that there was too much going on in the plot.
Storyboard supervisor Steve Anderson, after a test screening of the original film, says this, “I remember people saying there’s too many elements in the movie. It was The Prince and the Pauper. It was also the transformation of somebody into a llama. It was Yzma, who wants to raise the dead, snuff out the light, and have a world of darkness, but she also wants eternal youth and beauty. So it’s like, okay, but which one does she want?”
Since the screening, it was clear, Dindal’s light and zany scenes became much more appealing than the more serious Aller’s initial scenes. Higher-ups began approving the the more light hearted direction and the power was beginning to shift. This caused tension in the workplace, as said by storyboard artist Chris Williams, “Up until that moment, it was clear what we’re all trying to do, which is to support Roger and help him make his movie. Suddenly, my job changed. My job was now to work with Mark to try to help develop another movie, and we were competing with Roger. It was probably one of the most stressful periods of my life.” In the end, after it was clear that his story would not end up being completed, Allen stepped down from co-director, leaving Dindal solo in the directing position.
So that was it, the film shifted from a big scale prince and the pauper story that was a love letter to Peru became a buddy comedy adventure. But it wasn’t the end of the bumpy road for the crew. They had an entire movie to remake from the ground up with the same release date. There was also another issue, Sting wasn’t happy with this new direction either.
Executive producer Don Hahn stated, “Sting was a real mensch. When he saw the movie changing from the thing he signed up for, he sent a nice letter saying, “I didn’t sign up for this, good luck.” But Randy wasn’t going to let him resign. He was like, “Okay. We’ll talk next week and then we’ll send you the new assignment.” Sting would say, “No, you don’t understand.” Randy and Mark were persistent about keeping him involved. In the end he had some really great work in the movie. But I think it’s a difficult memory for him, because he wanted to do what Elton John did on Lion King.” What remains of Sting’s original vision for the music in Kingdom of the Sun can be found in the soundtrack for The Emperor’s New Groove. You’ll find songs such as Walk the Llama Llama (Pacha’s original introduction song), One Day She’ll Love Me (Pacha’s love song to Manco’s betrothed), and Snuff Out the Light (Yzma’s villain song performed by Eartha Kitt, a true hidden gem of a Disney song).
One rough moment in particular where Sting put his foot down was a deleted ending, which involved the newly named Emperor Kuzco levelling a nearby rainforest in order to build his Kuzco-topia. The ending was meant to play off as comedic, with Pacha and family keeping their home and the Emperor as a happy rich neighbor. Sting, a strong activist, stated in an interview with NME. “I wrote them a letter and said, ‘You do this, I’m resigning because this is exactly the opposite of what I stand for. I’ve spent 20 years trying to defend the rights of indigenous people and you’re just marching over them to build a theme park. I will not be party to this.” This is why the final cut ends with Kuzco getting a small, more humble summer home.
Nevertheless, though all the bumps and turns, the film was completed and released in December 2000 to a lower box office performance than what Disney was used to. There was a notably smaller marketing performance for the movie in favor of another film from the company coming out that Thanksgiving, 102 Dalmations.
The story behind Kingdom of the Sun and The Emperor’s New Groove is a story of ambition, creatives persevering against the odds, and an eventual shift of power, The Sweatbox follows it through every hurdle. This is the biggest reason why Disney has yet to give the documentary a proper release. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 2002, and had a few screenings after before fading into obscurity.
A review on MotionPicturesComics.Com says this of the film. “We meet various other key personnel on the Disney animation team – the co-director Mark Dindal, the producers, the lead animators tasked with bringing to life the film’s main characters, and more. Meanwhile, we follow Sting and his collaborator David Hartley as they work to write and record six songs for the film.
Then, about forty minutes in, we witness the fateful day in which an early story-boarded cut of the film is screened for the heads of Disney Feature Animation, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider. They hate the film, declare that it is not working, and begin a process of totally scrapping and reinventing huge chunks of the story. Characters are totally changed (the villager Pacha changes from a teenaged boy who looks just like the king into a heavyset married fortiesh man), voice actors are replaced, and the entire story is shifted around. The spoiled king (once called Manco, now renamed Kuzco, but still voiced by David Spade) becomes the main character. The epic saga becomes a small-scale buddy comedy. Director Roger Allers leaves the project, as do several lead animators. A Disney producer has to call super-star Sting to tell him that the six songs he’s been working on for the past two years no longer work in the film, because they’re about characters and story-lines that no longer exist, and they’d really love it if Sting would write some NEW songs for the film. And Trudie Styler & John-Paul Davidson’s cameras are there to capture it all.”
The Sweatbox isn’t a glamorous look into the production of another magical Disney masterpiece. It’s a rough, professional look into the less magical realities that come with making a film, especially one from a studio as big as Disney. It is those exact points that the creators behind it want the film to finally see a proper release. Per The Vulture, Co-Director John Paul Davidson says this about the film “… The Sweatbox has become the finished movie Disney doesn’t want you to see, transforming from what was supposed to be a promotional documentary to an intimate, hilarious, heartbreaking glimpse into what really happens behind the scenes of an animated project.”
Davidson goes on to say. “I think all the people who do animation are fascinated by The Sweatbox, because it’s not your saccharine making-of documentary. It gets into the sweat and the grit of it all. Disney owns the thing. We don’t have any clout in terms of releasing it ourselves. I would love to have released it. It pops up online now and then, and the lawyers take it back immediately.”
Indeed, the film does exist out there in the internet though not legally. In 2012, an unnamed individual leaked the completed documentary online. It has been circling the world in the form of Youtube uploads and torrents, only to be taken down by Disney lawyers and uploaded all over again. The film has gained an underground infamy because of this.
With Disney now running the juggernaut streaming service that is Disney +, documentaries have become more and more pushed by the studio as easy new content. Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II, a docu-series on the creation of the much-anticipated sequel to the smash hit Frozen, was very well received by viewers. There was also Howard, the documentary on the life of Disney composer Howard Ashman, which was critically praised upon release to the streaming service. Disney has also been giving new life to the documentaries of old such as Frank & Ollie, Waking Sleeping Beauty, and others. Maybe it’s about time The Sweatbox can be found among them.
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