Written PostJosh Reviews The Sweatbox, the Documentary the Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Want You to See!!

Josh Reviews The Sweatbox, the Documentary the Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Want You to See!!

Remember the Walt Disney Company’s 40th animated feature, released in 2000, called Kingdom of the Sun? It was an epic tale set in the Inca empire about a selfish king who briefly switches places with a poor farmer who happens to look just like him, and an evil magician with a plot to block out the sun.  The film featured the voices of David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Carla Gugino, and Harvey Fierstein, as well as six songs written for the film by Sting.

No?  You don’t remember seeing that movie?

That’s because after three years of work, Disney management decided to completely rework the film, throwing out much of the material they had created (along with all six songs recorded by Sting).  The film that was ultimately released to theatres was called The Emperor’s New Groove, and featured the voices of David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, Wendie Malick and Patrick Warburton, with two entirely different Sting songs in the film (“Perfect World,” performed by Tom Jones, and “My Funny Friend and Me”, which played over the closing credits).

The long, torturous process by which Kingdom of the Sun became The Emperor’s New Groove was captured in Trudie Styler and John-Paul Davidson’s amazing but long-shelved documentary The Sweatbox. In addition to being a filmmaker, Trudie Styler happens to be Sting’s wife.  When he agreed to be involved with the music for the film, he got the studio to agree to allow his wife to document the process.  She got a lot more than she bargained for.

The first thirty-to-forty minutes of The Sweatbox unfolds as one might expect any in-depth look at the making of an animated film to go.  We spend a lot of time with the film’s lead director, Roger Allers, who was a star at the studio after his work co-directing The Lion King, which had become a huge financial and critical success.  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.

It’s a brilliant film, and an endlessly fascinating look into the off-the-rails process of creating this film.

I’ve seen various behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVDs/blu-rays of Disney films, and especially of Pixar films, in which they trumpet the long production process of their films.  I remember watching footage about Toy Story 2 in which the filmmakers spoke proudly of how they completely reinvented the film at several points, trashing great swaths of material that they felt weren’t working.  These officiually-sanctioned featurettes have always taken the attitude that this long, often painful process results in the creation of the best possible film.  But was that really the case with Kingdom of the Sun/The Emperor’s New Groove?

Now, I will freely admit that I really love The Emperor’s New Groove! I love that it’s a smaller-scale film than the typical Disney animated feature.  I think it’s a very funny movie, witty and irreverent, and I love how fast-paced it is.  I love that it’s not a musical the way so many previous Disney animated films were.  It’s a small little buddy comedy, very unusual for Disney.  Roger Aller’s Kingdom of the Sun aspired to be something much more than that.  Might that film have succeeded?  Who knows!  Certainly what we see of the aborted film in The Sweatbox’s first forty minutes sounds fascinating, but that doesn’t mean it would have worked.  We are not able to be in that fateful screening, to see what Disney Feature Animation heads Schumacher and Schneider saw.  Were they wrong to have lost faith in their director’s vision?  Or were they right to have put a halt to an expensive production that was heading in the wrong direction?

Certainly Mr. Schumacher and Mr. Schneider do not come off well in the film.  They seem genuinely well-intentioned, but they represent the constant voice of critique and criticism throughout the documentary.  There’s certainly something off-putting about watching these Disney artists work and work, only to have to present their work for a brutal thumbs-up/thumbs-down ruling from the Feature Animation heads.  (On the other hand, again, at no point in the documentary are we really able to see what they saw.  That’s not a criticism of the documentary, just a reality about a 90 minute film that sums up a three-to-four-year process.  Mr. Schumacher and Mr. Schneider come off as jerks, but that might not be entirely fair to them.)   What is clear is the heartbreak Roger Allers suffers when his vision for his film is crushed, a heartbreak that results in his stepping off of the project and out of the documentary.  (Some cursory internet researching on Mr. Allers indicates that while he has continued working, he hasn’t been involved with a project anywhere near the scale of The Lion King or his cancelled Kingdom of the Sun ever since.)

In my rather bombastic headline, I proclaimed The Sweatbox to be “The Documentary the Walt Disney Company Doesn’t Want You to See!!”  This is true, as the Disney Co. has blocked any release of Ms. Styler & Mr. Davidson’s documentary for the past decade.  It has screened at one or two festivals but nothing beyond that — no theatrical release, no home video release, nothing.  But this past week a rough cut of the documentary popped up on-line.  It was on youtube for two seconds before being yanked. I watched it on vimeo and you should too!! This is NOT the finished version of the film that screened at festivals, but it’s most likely the only version you or I will ever get to see.

The Sweatbox is an absolutely engaging peek behind the curtain into the inner working of Disney Studios, and it is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.  It’s the Disney version of Lost in La Mancha (the fantastic documentary about Terry Gilliam’s unmade Don Quixote movie starring Johnny Depp — click here for my review.)

If you have any interest in learning more about how the sausage of these films are made, then I strongly encourage you to click here to watch The Sweatbox.  But buckle up.  It’s not a smooth ride.