As a fan of film, I love exploring behind the scenes. Reading about the production process, the special effects and the stories of what could have been.
Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Disney’s animated feature film release in 2000 was The Emperors New Groove. The film opened to good reviews but was not considered new or groundbreaking. Considering the film had a troubled production lasting six years, maybe Disney considered themselves lucky.
Development started back in 1994 when the project was originally entitled Kingdom of the Sun. The story was to be another take on the classic Mark Twain story The Prince And The Pauper and was to be considerably different from the final released film known as The Emperors New Groove.
Set in ancient Incan times, the selfish emperor voiced by David Spade, swapped places with a peasant boy who was his spitting image just for fun. The peasant boy was voiced by Owen Wilson.
Meanwhile, the evil witch Yzma, voiced by Eartha Kitt, has plans to capture the sun and set the land into darkness believing this will give her eternal youth. She believed the sun gives you wrinkles, so she wants it gone.
But when Yzma discovers that the emperor has switched places with a peasant boy, she transforms the emperor into a llama and threatens to reveal his true identity unless he obeys her. The emperor learns futility in his new llama form and even falls in love with a young llama herder girl. Together this strange young couple set out to stop the witches evil plans.
The team behind this film were the same talented people from the smash hit The Lion King. When the first test screenings took place, Disney executives were disappointed that it was too similar to other Prince And The Pauper stories and asked for it to be changed. Disney hired another director to help, this is not uncommon with animation.
Unfortunately, the two directors clashed in styles and it showed at the next test screening where once again the Disney executives were not happy with the latest version of the film. Disney needed it to be finished by the summer of 2000 to meet with merchandising tie-ins with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola etc.
At the beginning of 1999, The Lion King director asked for an extension of six months to a year to successfully complete the film as he saw it. Disney denied the request and so he left the project.
The remaining director retooled the entire film into what became The Emperors New Groove. Gone was Owen Wilson’s peasant boy, the witch trying to steal the sun and also another major contribution from the musician Sting.
At the start of the project, based on the success of The Lion King with Elton John, they asked Sting if he could write and perform several songs for the film. He agreed as long as his wife could film the process to create a documentary to which Disney agreed.
Sting also became a victim of the troubled production as the songs he had written and performed were so tightly linked to events of the original plot that they were useless for the revised version. They asked Sting if he would record another new song which he agreed to do reluctantly as he was currently hard at work on a new album.
All of these events were captured by Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, on camera. She edited the footage together into a documentary entitled The Sweatbox. This is the name given to the original room at Disney which had no windows or air conditioning, where the animators revealed their work to management and executives for the first time.
The ninety-minute documentary shows you all I have mentioned and more. You can witness the film come to pieces with Disney executives picking the film apart. Also, the moment when Sting is contacted by phone and told all his work to date has now been rendered useless.
Unfortunately, Disney won’t let you see this documentary as it portrays them in a bad light, even though an approved cut was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002.
Luckily for us, people upload a workprint (a rough cut) version onto the internet every once in a while. I managed to watch it a few weeks ago and it was an interesting and insightful look into the inner workings at Disney.
Here is a working link at the time of writing. (Updated October 2016)