Working up a ‘Sweat’: Film Festival premieres documentary on Disney

For those of you who have seen “The Emperor’s New Groove,” it may come as a surprise that the movie was almost never made. For those of you who have not, shame on you. “Groove” stands out as one of the most entertaining movies in the history of Disney, a rare exception in the stream of formulaic drivel that Michael Eisner has trotted out since “The Lion King.” The documentary “The Sweatbox,” screened by the Williamstown Film Festival in its U.S. premiere on Oct. 26, chronicles the long and tortuous process that was the production of “Groove.”

“The Sweatbox” takes its name from the 1930s screening room in which the animators used to watch the dailies along with the man himself, Walt Disney. While the term was more literal then, co-directors John-Paul Davidson and Trudie Styler, who is also Sting’s wife, present a window into the taxing development of an animated feature. This brutally honest depiction is in itself an aberration of contractual obligation. Sting, who features prominently in “The Sweatbox,” was contracted to produce six songs for Disney’s major feature “Kingdom of the Sun.” Lumped into the deal were production rights for the making-of documentary, which went to his wife’s film company, Xingu Films, since I can assure you Disney would never produce something like this on its own.

The documentary opens with the “Emperor’s New Groove” premiere. It’s all there: red carpets, cameras flashing and Sting in a tux. The first indication something might be amiss comes from those on the carpet, from cryptic remarks that the film appearing “honors the process” to David Spade comparing the making of “Groove” to undergoing surgery.

Next, we jump back three years and learn about the next Disney animated epic “Kingdom of the Sun.” Director Roger Allers and Mark Dindal are both bordering on jubilant as they discuss the story, which takes place in the time of the Incas. The plot itself is a bit convoluted, but the short version seems to be a variation on the Prince and the Pauper theme. Emperor Manco (Spade) switches places with a twin-like peasant named Pacha (Owen Wilson). Aside from that, there’s a love interest, a plot by an evil advisor named Yzma and a heady dose of Incan lore.

It is here that we’re introduced to Sting’s part in the project, as he starts work on six songs to be used in the film. The first problem appears as Sting complains that there isn’t any actual script yet written – despite the glut of story boards, conceptual art and preliminary animation.

This is not to say things are crashing down – in fact, it looks as though the film is shaping up quite nicely. The audience is treated to never-before-shown clips of “Kingdom” as well as fairly candid interviews with various members of the production staff. From character animator Andreas Deja acting out Yzma’s hip thrust to a peek into Disney’s extensive art archives, the process is shown to be as complex as one might imagine.

Sting’s songs are heard, and while hearing him wax philosophical about the llama’s position in Incan culture is interesting, his worries about the lack of direction are even more so. Considering the director’s relation to him, I found it rather questionable how often Sting appears as a pithy commentator, from “we were young when we started this thing” to “I’ve got to be honest, I’d say the process does work.” Styler appears to be very conscious of how her singer-husband comes across in her documentary.

The hustle and bustle finally culminates in the first screening for the Disney animation heads Pete Schneider and Tom Schumacher. The crew are seen to pace furtively outside the screening room. Producer Randy Fullmer compares the experience to having your pants pulled down and your hands chopped off, then being ushered onto a stage, unable to pull up your pants. Gruesome? Yes. Apt? It seems so.

This is where “Kingdom” begins to crumble. Schneider and Schumacher rip the film apart, Allers departing from the project, leaving Dindal as the sole director and Sting is informed that his six songs are now useless. This last bit was particularly telling, though we can only hear Sting’s reaction as Fullmer informs him over the phone of the latest change.

From here on, the movie’s pace accelerates. The directors completely reinvent the plot as the rest of the staff work to complete a three year project in a year and a half. Sting is asked to write two songs for the new movie, and though it’s of limited interest, “The Sweatbox” repeatedly focuses on him. Personally, I would have preferred to see more of the animation process and less of Sting discussing his difficulty continuing the project.

Somehow when it’s all over, “The Emperor’s New Groove” emerges.

The WFF screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with John-Paul Davidson. When asked about the drama “Kingdom of the Sun” unexpectedly turned out to be, Davidson remarked, “It was just a job – I knew nothing about animation; I was actually expecting it to be a rather boring film.”

As expected, Davidson commented on Disney’s aversion to the film, “The execs were worried that we were letting the cat out of the bag, making them look like they didn’t know what they were doing…but I think they did know what they were doing; it just didn’t go right this time.”

While it’s easy to argue that “Kingdom of the Sun” did not go as planned, I found that the execs didn’t make it out of “The Sweatbox” unscathed. It’s never made clear what is wrong with “Kingdom,” and the animators whose work gets lambasted come across as far more sympathetic than studio heads who spout such gems as “I’m not objecting to the family idea – it just doesn’t work.” Ultimately, this struggle between the artistic visions of the directors and those of the studio chiefs is the most compelling part of the documentary.

As a documentary whose modest expectations were exceeded by the subject matter, “The Sweatbox” bears similarity to 2001’s “Startup.com.” In this case, however, the movie holds far more than the struggles of its players. “Sweatbox” gives a look into the world of Disney and animation that you won’t find on any special edition DVD.

Fans of the medium would be well-advised to check this one out, as the process is elaborated by true masters of the craft. Finally, if your interest in cartoons has waned as of late, but you really like Sting, I noted at least three distinct hairstyles on him over the course of the film. Not my cup of tea, but it’s something.