Doc of the Day: The Sweatbox Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Sweatbox

Posted in Days of Docs, Reviews by - August 30, 2012

Go behind the scenes of The Emperor’s New Groove. It was once a very different film.

Dir. Trudie Styler, 2002, 85 min, Viewed via Vimeo

One unique aspect of animation is how thoroughly you can rework aspects of a film, even at incredibly late stages in the development process. Many animated movies have gone through extensive changes over the course of their productions, often looking nothing like they did at their outsets by the end. The Emperor’s New Groove is a prime example of this. When Disney started work on it in 1994, it was one of their Broadway-style musicals, called Kingdom of the Sun. By the time it was released in 2000, it was a slapstick-heavy comedy more in line with classic Looney Tunes than anything Disney had done before. The Sweatbox charts this transformation, showing the long, painful process of working and reworking the film, until it finally reached completion.

Disney refuses to allow the doc to get any kind of release, and it’s kind of easy to see why. Even though there’s nothing scandalous in it whatsoever, the Mouse House wants to protect its reputation as a shiny-happy-sugar-rainbow-princess-dream factory at all costs. The actions of the Disney artists, executives, and other assorted employees on display here aren’t unflattering to the company at all; in fact it’s all pretty standard for Hollywood. But even to be humanized is to be brought too low for Disney, it seems.

Kingdom of the Sun went through a tumultuous evolution to become The Emperor’s New Groove. It was originally an epic tale that adapted The Prince and the Pauper to a fantasy Central/South American setting, featuring original music by Sting. There still exists storyboards, animatics, and even voice acting from this earlier period, including scenes featuring a character voiced by Owen Wilson who was eventually retooled so significantly that Wilson was cut out. The problem with Kingdom was that it suffered a wildly schizophrenic tone. There were two directors, and one, Roger Allers (co-director of The Lion King) leaned more to the dramatic side, while the other, Mark Dindal, favored the comedic. Test audience response was ill-favored, and at one point the production went on hold for half a year to get a total overhaul. The fact that a complete movie ever came out at all seems like a minor miracle.

Filmmaking itself is something of a miracle. Somehow hundreds of people working together on one thing doesn’t result in utter disaster, but in a cohesive work of art. What’s cool about this film is how it breaks down the various aspects of production to show us how these individual parts work, both on their own and within the hole. We sit in on writer meetings, look over the shoulder of an artist at his easel, see Sting composing his songs (eventually, all but one of them wound up out of the film), and watch the actors speaking into their microphones. It’s a great look at the animation process, one more valuable than any making-of special DVD feature.

The Sweatbox has gained a certain amount of notoriety due it’s “forbidden nature,” since it probably won’t ever be available via legitimate means. It doesn’t really live up to that reputation at all, but that’s not the movie’s fault. The Sweatbox is an interesting inside-baseball look at the clockworks of Disney and the general struggles of building movies. If you’re an animation fan, it’s probably a must-see. If you aren’t it’s still pretty great.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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