"The Sweatbox," is a documentary about making an animated film, that was completed roughly around 2001, premiered at a film festival, and had a limited run in exactly two theaters before it all but vanished off the face of the earth for over a decade. Nothing in the documentary is controversial or contentious. It's probably not even going to be particularly interesting except to a certain subset of film historians, animation lovers, and Disney geeks. However, it does capture a certain piece of Disney history the company is not keen on acknowledging: the troubled production of "Kingdom of the Sun."
The back story goes something like this. Back in 1997, Sting was approached about writing songs for a new South-America themed Disney animated musical, to be directed by "The Lion King's" Roger Allers. He agreed to do the project on the condition that his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, was allowed to document the process. Disney fans will know that "Kingdom of the Sun" was originally meant to be a sweeping epic patterned off "The Prince and the Pauper," but ultimately it reached theaters six months late, reworked as a zany buddy comedy, and renamed "The Emperor's New Groove." The six songs that Sting wrote were reduced to an abridged opening number and a song over the credits. The missing songs only remain on the film's soundtrack, as they were written for an entirely different movie than the one that was actually released.
Since Trudie Styler was given unprecedented access to the film's production, she wound up having a front row seat to all of the film's behind-the-scenes woes. There were delays in production. Early versions of the film didn't test well. A new director, Mark Dindal was brought onboard who often worked at cross purposes with Roger Allers. Finally, Allers quit and the entire film was drastically overhauled. "The Sweatbox," named after the pressure-filled screening room where the in-progress animated footage was reviewed, was completed shortly after "The Emperor's New Groove" was released in theaters. The documentary, which runs a pretty brief 84 minutes, is actually longer than the completed feature, which is an even briefer 77 minutes. Of course, Disney owned the rights to Styler's film and made sure that it was seen by only very limited audiences. It was never publicized, never released on home video, and never made available to the general public except in heavily edited form.
Until now. A few days ago, someone leaked a workprint of "The Sweatbox" to the internet, where it has been making the rounds on filesharing and video sharing sites. As a Disney fan, I'm ecstatic. I never expected the film to resurface, considering how notoriously uptight Disney is about its public image. It was only in 2010 that a mostly candid documentary about the beginning of the Disney animation Renaissance of the 90s, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" was put together by a few Disney veterans with the company's blessing. That documentary was about Disney's successes. "The Sweatbox," on the other hand, was made during that period when things at Disney Animation were really starting to go wrong. Disney fans disagree about when the Renaissance ended and the downward spiral began, but for me the turning point was the Disney films that were released right around the year 2000: the awful "Dinosaur," the uneven "Fantasia 2000," and "The Emperor's New Groove," which was, ironically, a perfectly good movie. After following the rumors of the film's endless troubles for years, I saw "The Emperor's New Groove" in theaters in December, 2000 to wind down after finals, and loved it.
The biggest irony about "The Sweatbox" is that it isn't the shocking expose that Disney seem to think it is. Rather, it's proof that sometimes the creative process is messy, very talented people can go off track, and making one of these films is not nearly as easy as the company like to pretend it is. Some want to bill "The Sweatbox" as the record of a catastrophe for the studio, but I think actually captured the creation of one of Disney's last successes in traditional animation. Though the original version of "Kingdom of the Sun" went down in flames and "The Emperor's New Groove" was considered a bust at the box office, the movie has actually gone on to be one of the most popular of the late-era animated Disney films. It even got its own direct-to-video sequel and a television spinoff. Hollywood has seen a lot of troubled productions and a lot of filmmaking disasters, and in the end "The Emperor's New Groove" actually came out okay, despite all the drama shown in the documentary. I feel badly for Roger Allers and Sting for all their wasted efforts and disappointments. Really, I do. But in the end, I think I'd much rather have the Tex Avery homage with llamas that Mark Dindal whipped up, instead of that big epic musical extravaganza.