With Frozen and Zootopia topping box office charts, and with the release of Moana just around the corner, it seems Disney animation has entered a second Renaissance after over a decade of letting Pixar do the heavy lifting. The previous Renaissance, spanning from The Little Mermaid (you can argue Basil: The Great Mouse Detective if you wish) through to around Tarzan, had seen Disney sweeping box offices and awards following a decade of misfires after Walt’s death, but also many internal battles, scrapped projects and the loss of many members for natural or financial reasons.
One of the biggest was lyricist Howard Ashman, whose tragic death left Aladdin unfinished, and Disney snatching up every musician and composer they could to try and fill that hole. Tim Rice, Elton John, Stephen Schwartz and Phil Collins all came onboard at one time or another, so it only figures they would inevitably hire someone like Sting, and that’s where 2001’s The Sweatbox comes in.
Directed by Sting´s wife, Trudie Styler, The Sweatbox is a behind the scenes look at the making of Kingdom of the Sun (or as you’d know it, The Emperor´s New Groove), a 1994 Disney film that would’ve given Incan culture the Lion King treatment (a classic story, infused with foreign culture, peppered with Broadway numbers), and fitting too as LK co-director Roger Allers was the mind behind the project. Naturally, LK’s outstanding success gave Allers the go-ahead, and he began crafting a Prince and the Pauper style story set in pre-Colonial Peru. Sting was brought onboard to provide the songs, and Eartha Kitt hired to play the film’s villain, the lanky and vain courtier Yzma. So far, all very good choices and above-board on paper. However, The Sweatbox quickly shows this was far from being true.
Ego, confusion, company policy and changes in focus all played a hand in Kingdom’s transformation into Groove, and the use of on-scene footage brings The Sweatbox closer to the likes of Hearts of Darkness than the affectionate look back of Death of Superman Lives or Doomed. You see the hope and eagerness of the staff, but also the active dismay and annoyance with the changes, and Sweatbox isn’t as one-sided as you’d expect. Allers is not presented in an entirely saintly light, while his corporate superiors are not always presented as greedy, soulless monsters. Rather, Allers is shown as being enthusiasm over substance, as it becomes painfully obvious that Allers’ vision is a bunch of ideas (Incan culture, songs by Sting, Eartha Kitt) rather than a cohesive piece, as the film begins production without a set script. Like many special effects wizards and cinematographers who become directors, Allers is a great craftsman, but not a visionary.
As for Sting himself, he serves more as an encapsulation of the film’s themes of the peculiarities of creative arts and its frustrations. He’s placed carefully throughout the film, often when the film’s production is at a crossroads over where to go. Paralleling Allers, Sting whips up a bunch of songs, only to find them being cut back or altered as the project changes from Incan Pauper to the buddy movie we know today. Like Allers, we see Sting veer from enthusiasm to frustration to even outright anger with how the project and goes further away from what he had signed up for.
Disney’s hiding of the film, even after Groove has come and gone, may be very simple: it’s an honest look at filmmaking i.e. a long and tedious process of battles, experimentation and disillusionment. This isn’t the Magic Kingdom that we think of Disney as culturally, but rather a nuts and bolts business putting out a product. If artistry and ambition have to be sacrificed to meet deadlines, so be it. Money talks, after all. Disney directors and employees are not all heir apparent to Walt or the Nine Old Men, but are human. They argue, they bicker, they swear, all very different to what many would usually see in glossy behind the scenes featurettes on home media. The title even comes from the lack of air conditioning in the studio. It reminds us that art is a difficult thing to grasp, and cannot be made to order or just be expected to ‘come along’ through endless meetings and memos.
If you’d like to see the film in its entirety (it was severely edited down for the Groove DVD release into little more than a piece about Yzma’s song, Snuff Out The Light), you’ll have to hunt around internet video sites for it (I cannot say which, as ThirdActFilm.com doesn’t condone torrenting or piracy). More than any other documentary I’ve seen on the subject, Sweatbox really does show what making a film is truly like: There’s no hindsight, no fond memories, no cultural lens, just ordinary people doing their job and dealing with management pressures.
The Sweatbox’s greatest and most damning indictment of Disney is that, past the awards and the history and the iconic characters, it really is like any other job.
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