Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In Which, By Some Miracle, Trish Watches "The Sweatbox"

It was a huge weekend for animation news, wasn't it? Glen Keane, one of my biggest influences, resigned after 37 years(!?!) at Disney. The initial episodes of "The Legend of Korra" (the sequel series to the outstanding "Avatar: The Last Airbender") were temporarily released a little early.

And, what else what else? It was kinda important... Oh yeah! "The Sweatbox" appeared online for a while.

Ah, "
The Sweatbox", the legendary documentary made by Trudie Styler that chronicles the very very strange evolution of "The Emperor's New Groove". I'd heard about it, I'd read about it, and I was pretty sure I'd never get to see it. I think the film was screened in two, if even that, film festivals years ago and hasn't resurfaced in any meaningful way since, most likely because Disney owns the rights to the documentary and the executives did not enjoy the way they were portrayed in it.

Well it appears as though by some completely random chance, an early cut of "The Sweatbox" surfaced in various places online. I learned about this while reading an animation thread on a certain website last Thursday. "Screw you, original afternoon plans," I said and dropped everything to watch the workprint immediately.

I was actually afraid that it would be taken down as I was watching, so I didn't want to risk waiting. It has since been deleted from YouTube, but the Internet never forgets and there's a
very slight chance that it's still available somewhere out there. It was well worth a look just to satisfy my curiosity about the thing.

Now a very, very small portion of the film was posted over the summer and is still available (see above). It actually gives you an excellent idea of the documentary as a whole. First of all, it's not at all the muckraking clusterf*** I was led to expect after all these years. As a matter of fact, it's actually very sympathetic towards the film crew. If there was more aggressive dissent between the film crew and the executives, it's not onscreen. Heck, the executives don't even come across as that bad; they really only just admit that the original version of the film isn't working. There's not a lot of screaming and swearing, but there's a lot of shrugging and statements of "Oh well, them's the breaks."

The story is, naturally, mostly told from Sting's point of view and therefore covers how he and the other musicians and composers had to radically alter the film's music as it went under several dramatic tonal changes. I hate to say it, but this part of the story was by far the least interesting. We do get to see a lot of the animation art from
"Kingdom of the Sun," the movie that mutated into "Emperor." This includes the brilliant Yzma villain song posted above and an animatic for another completely deleted song. Mostly there's storyboards, animatics, story sequences that were completely cut, and early character designs. These last two things are especially fascinating, and I really wish that much more time was spent on them.

We learn that Pacha was originally a
completely different character, much younger and voiced by Owen Wilson. He would have been involved in a sort of "Prince and the Pauper" subplot, switching places with the transformed Emperor... Manco (stop laughing, Japan). There was a very very strange little character essentially in Kronk's role; a talking Olmec statue who sang a song about why humans can't be more like rocks. Yeah. And there was a princess character(?!?) who falls for Pacha(!?!?!) and sings the aforementioned deleted love song with him(?!?!?!?) while he is taking the Emperor's place.

Now it turns out that the tone of "Kingdom" wasn't as dreadfully serious as I'd been led to believe. It looks like the film had two very different supervisors, one of whom wanted a serious big damn epic, and the other wanted more humor. Eventually the humorous director got to take over the project entirely, and we got "The Emperor's New Groove". Sting was called -while on tour, which was just a little bit problematic for him- to write new songs for the new version of the film and from what "The Sweatbox" shows us, these are essentially the ones we hear in the final film. Yes, including "My Funny Friend and Me", which I always assumed was a holdover from "Kingdom of the Sun" and seems to come from yet another completely different film entirely. The sadder story is that of Andreas Deja, who is interviewed twice (*sigh*, only twice): once as he is working on the earlier version of Yzma and again after he's essentially dropped from the project.

Hanging over the documentary is, of course, the fact that "Emperor's New Groove" actually did eventually get made and released (with a lot of the discarded songs on the soundtrack yet), and is, especially given it's strange history, really good. So while "The Sweatbox" isn't like the "Lost in LaMancha" of animation, it's an entertaining look behind the scenes of an animated film, which is a rare treat indeed. I still wish Disney would let it be officially released so that more fans could finally satisfy their curiosity about it.


Sketch of the Day!

Some of these character designs might have been for the project I had to put on hold when I heard I could finally watch "The Sweatbox":

3.12.12 - Random Character Ideas

1 comment:

Grant said...

I agree, the Sweatbox wasn't as damning as the rumours would have you believe.

What struck me the most when I watched it was the feeling that they went about the whole thing backwards. Get Sting to write a bunch of songs... get Eartha Kitt to record them... and THEN decide what your story is going to be about? Very strange.