Review: ‘The Sweatbox’

A fascinating peek at how creative decisions get made and unmade, "The Sweatbox" traces what was by all accounts an exceptionally tortuous incubation process for 2000 Disney release "The Emperor's New Groove." Absorbing docu is a must for serious animation fans and film buffs in general.

A fascinating peek at how creative decisions get made and unmade, “The Sweatbox” traces what was by all accounts an exceptionally tortuous incubation process for 2000 Disney release “The Emperor’s New Groove.” As much the story of a movie that didn’t get made as that of the (almost entirely different) one which did, absorbing docu is a must for serious animation fans and film buffs in general. Best chances to catch it will probably lie in ancillary formats, however, since connection to the medium-profile kidpic “Groove” won’t carry much weight in arthouse theatrical terms. Pic had an Oscar-qualifying L.A. run this week.

Pic’s unusual level of access to the normally closely guarded Mouse House was managed via nepotism — Sting agreed to pen songs (in collaboration with David Hartley) for the planned cartoon on the condition his wife Trudi Styler be allowed to document the larger process. (Styler makes her directorial debut here, sharing credit with John-Paul Davidson, whose prior parlor drama “The Grotesque” and docu “Boys From Brazil” she’d produced.) The singer-songwriter came on board in 1997, when “The Lion King” co-helmer Roger Allers’ original concept had already traveled some distance down the planning pipeline.

Allers’ film, then called “The Kingdom of the Sun,” would draw on Inca creation myths to trace an ambitious, seriocomic Peru-set story arc stretching from ancient times to the present day, with a “The Prince and the Pauper” dynamic as its narrative hook. We witness the parallel work tracks of animation and soundtrack talent, as the former hatch storyboards, refine character ideas, and determine pic’s overall “look,” while Sting & Co. pen six songs. Voice artists glimpsed in the studio at this phase are Eartha Kitt, David Spade and (very briefly) Owen Wilson.

Once “Kingdom” is presented as a rough-sketched but fully voiced and full-length “story reel” to top execs Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, however, negative reaction forces everyone back to the drawing board, after three years’ work. Several new stories are pitched, the most offhandedturning out to be the one approved. Eventually given its new, final title, project is now a much simpler, less challenging comedy that has almost no use for the already-complete score.

Ceding control to his late-arriving co-director Mark Dindal, Allers soon exits a project for which he no longer has any passion. A much-shifted character lineup also results in different vocal casting, with Wilson replaced by John Goodman, among other changes.

Once it’s approved, crew is given just 18 months until pic’s premiere. Meanwhile, Sting has moved on to recording his next album; when he’s finally asked to pen another song (one of only two now used), he’s on an international concert tour, having to compose just weeks before “Emperor’s” planned release.

While everyone puts the best possible face on it, there’s no hiding the disappointment and frustration — among everyone from animators to voice actors — that greet pic’s forced, radical makeover.

In the end, “Emperor’s New Groove” proved a solid if unremarkable performer for Disney; slight if often very funny, it was distinguished most by the hilarious vocal contribs by Spade and Patrick Warburton (as villainess Kitt’s genial-oaf sidekick). While there’s no guessing how “Kingdom” might have turned out, most viewers are likely to go away thinking that the opportunity for a classic Disney feature was blown — with the cheerful but assertive duo of Schumacher and Schneider cast as the Bad Guys. Clips from project’s various gestational stages as well as interviews with key creative personnel provide terrific insight into the unique, truly collaborative process behind major Disney cartoons. Scenes of Sting (who at one point threatens to quit, calling the revamped project mere “hamburger”), Kitt and Tom Jones (hired to sing a Vegas-style anthem) in the studio are exciting, while such late-in-game aspects as background-score orchestration and tie-in product marketing also get intriguing screentime.

Smartly paced docu is first-rate in all tech aspects, with no end of production materials on display — glimpses of “Kingdom’s” B&W story reel make one long to see the same for other Disney features presumably changed during the road to final cut.

The Sweatbox

U.K.

Production

A Xingu Films production. (International sales: Xingu Films, London.) Produced, directed by John-Paul Davidson, Trudie Styler.

Crew

Camera (color), Neal Brown); editor, Suzanne Szabo Rostock; original music, David Hartley; sound, Bob Eber. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 11, 2002. Running time: 86 MIN.
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