THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’

The one that survived the production from hell.

In the midst of its mid-1990s renaissance, Disney’s executives felt they’d finally cracked the formula for success with their animation films; take a sweeping love story, add in some comical, scene-stealing supporting characters, and serve it up with several extravagant musical numbers. With films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King following this recipe, the box office results proved this was the path Disney should continue to follow.

As such, when The Lion King director Roger Allers and his collaborator Matthew Jacobs pitched a new animated film in 1994 entitled The Kingdom of the Sun which perfectly fit that very Disney formula, then-CEO Michael Eisner lept at the opportunity. After Allers’ record-breaking success on The Lion King, Eisner essentially gave the director free rein to do as he pleased with the project. As fate would have it, Allers’ film would never see the light of day and the studio would struggle through one of the most chaotic productions in their entire history.

With Eisner’s blessing, Allers and Jacobs began development on Kingdom of the Sun in 1995, with the film standing as a loose musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Set in the age of the Inca Empire of Peru, the film centred on a greedy, selfish emperor named Manco (to be voiced by David Spade) who switches places with a peasant named Pacha (to be voiced by Owen Wilson) to escape his administrational obligations and have fun with his life. But when the evil witch Yzma (to be voiced by Eartha Kitt) discovers the emperor’s plan, she turns Manco into a llama and threatens to reveal Pacha’s true identity unless he helps fulfil her plan of summoning the god of death, Supay.

The narrative also featured two love stories, with Pacha falling in love with the emperor’s betrothed fiancé Nina (to be voiced by Carla Gugino) and Manco taken in by a kindly llama-herder named Mata (to be voiced by Laura Prepon), who helps him undo Yzma’s plan and forms a close kinship with the llama. To add additional comedy to the piece, Yzma was aided in her quest by her sarcastic sidekick, Hucua (to be voiced by Harvey Fierstein), a talking talisman who advises the evil witch during her dastardly plan.

After the success of Elton John’s Oscar-winning work on The Lion King soundtrack, Allers personally reached out to music icon Sting to compose several songs for Kingdom of the Sun. The musician agreed on one condition; his filmmaker wife, Trudie Styler could document the entire production for the purposes of a feature-length documentary to either be released separately or as part of the DVD bonus features. The resulting film entitled The Sweatbox (we’ll get to it later) would ultimately document a production in absolute turmoil.

With his songwriting partner David Hartley, Sting worked closely with the animation team to echo Disney’s earlier musical films by crafting songs that ultimately formed part of the film’s narrative and were linked to Allers’ plot and characters. Sting and Hartley ultimately composed eight songs for the film, with tracks either sung by the film’s characters or by Sting himself.

In early 1996, key members of the production team travelled to Machu Picchu, Peru to study ancient Inca artifacts and architecture and the ruins of the landscape the empire once existed in. The team took extensive photography and video footage to document Inca culture to use as a reference for the animation team. Upon their return, they were informed the Disney executives were concerned the project was becoming far too serious and felt too similar to the box office flops Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As such, comedy director Mark Dindal was enlisted to co-direct with Allers in the hopes of adding more comedic elements to the film’s storyline.

After almost two years of pre-production work, Eisner was furious the film was still lagging in the development stages and the early storyboards and script still weren’t funny. By the summer of 1998, it was becoming apparent Kingdom of the Sun was unlikely to meet its planned summer 2000 release date. Eisner reportedly stormed into producer Randy Fullmer’s office and warned him the production was close to being shut down, especially given the studio was now in danger of losing lucrative promotional deals with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola tied around the film’s summer release.

In a meeting with Fullmer, Allers admitted the production had fallen behind, but felt his team were crafting something truly special and simply needed more time to see their vision come to fruition. Allers begged Fullmer for a release date extension of between six months and a year, confident his team could then complete the film. Knowing Eisner would never agree to such a delay, Fullmer denied Allers’ request, leading to the director dejectedly walking away from a passion project he had been working on for almost four years of his life.

Despite production costs amounting to somewhere between $25-30 million and around 25% of the film already animated, on September 13, 1998, Eisner officially put the production on hold, informing Fullmer he had two weeks to completely retool the entire project or it would be shut down permanently. Over the course of the next six months, Fullmer and Dindal overhauled the film’s narrative with the assistance of comedy writer David Reynolds, who reworked the storyline into a simplistic buddy road comedy, now titled The Emperor’s New Groove, that essentially rewrote every character of Allers’ original project.

After Fullmer discovered Manco was similar to a derogatory Japanese term for female genitalia, the character was quickly renamed Kuzco. While the narrative kept Manco’s selfish and greedy nature, Kuzco would now undergo his llama transformation after being poisoned by Yzma, who seeks to usurp the emperor from his throne. In his hour of need, Kuzco turns to local villager Pacha, who was now reworked as a much older character than originally intended. As such, Wilson was dropped from the project and replaced by John Goodman. Hucua was also dropped from the script, leading to the subsequent departure of Fierstein.

In Hucua’s place, the team reworked Yzma’s sidekick character into a dopey jock named Kronk, with Seinfeld actor Patrick Warburton hired to voice the role. In the original version, Yzma was an age-obsessed villain who longed to remain young and beautiful forever, leading to her quest to summon the god of death to vanquish the sun forever. But this no longer fit with the comical tone of the film, and Yzma was instead crafted as Kuzco’s eccentric, power-hungry advisor who seeks vengeance on the emperor after he fires her for attempting to rule the empire behind his back.

With so much upheaval with the film’s narrative and characters, all eight of Sting and Hartley’s songs no longer fit the production, leading to Fullmer informing the musician his work had to be entirely scrapped. With its focus on comedy, the film was no longer planned to be a musical, leaving Sting without the option of rewriting the tracks, which were ultimately featured on the film’s soundtrack as bonus tracks. Despite feeling bitter over the removal of his work, Sting remained connected to the project and was asked to create two new songs to open and close the film.

For the film’s big opening number, Sting wrote a lively, Las Vegas-style song called “Perfect World,” which would introduce Kuzco and his lavish lifestyle. Fullmer initially asked Sting to perform this number himself, but he felt he was too old to sing the track and pushed the filmmakers to find someone younger. Strangely, Fullmer ultimately went with Tom Jones, who is 11 years older than Sting. Sting also wrote a song for the film’s end credits entitled “My Funny Friend and Me,” which, frankly, has very little to do with the film itself, but still scored the singer an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

With the structure of The Emperor’s New Groove now more settled, Eisner approved a new release date of Christmas 2000, moving Dinosaur into the now-vacant summer 2000 release date and informing Fullmer no further extensions would be approved. The actual animation process did not commence until mid-1999, meaning the team had less than 18 months to complete the production. Dindal pushed his animation team for a simpler approach that emphasised the characters and avoided the use of expensive and time-consuming special effects or detailed background design.

After Yzma was essentially rewritten, veteran animator Andreas Deja asked to be reassigned to another project, feeling his more serious initial designs of the villain were no longer compatible with the comedic tone of the film. Consequently, he moved to Orlando, Florida to begin work on Lilo & Stitch, with Dale Baer replacing him as the supervising animator for Yzma. Baer closely observed Kitt’s recording sessions to incorporate the actor’s distinctive movements and expressions into Yzma’s character designs.

For both the human and llama incarnations of Kuzco, animator Nik Ranieri was assigned supervising design duties after completing work on Hercules, where the animator was responsible for the designs of the villainous Hades. Ranieri also observed the recording sessions, taking heavy inspiration from Spade’s lively performance within the studio booth. To further assist with the design of Kuzco in llama form, the filmmakers arranged live llamas to visit the studio for the animators to observe and study. The team also visited the Los Angeles Zoo to examine the animals in a more natural environment.

As the film was entering its final stages of production, the team received a horrified letter from Sting, who had just received the final screenplay and was disgusted at its current ending. In the original draft, Kuzco builds his Kuzcotopia amusement park on a vacant piece of land, thus saving Pacha’s village but consequently destroying a large portion of the Peruvian rainforest. After spending years defending the rights of indigenous people, Sting felt the ending was completely at odds with his humanitarian work and it would damage his reputation to be associated with the film. To his amazement, the filmmakers agreed and subsequently rewrote the ending to what we see in the final film.

By the film’s completion, over 400 artists and 300 technicians had worked on the project, with the bulk of animation completed by the animators in Disney’s Burbank, California studio and assistance provided by Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida and Disney Animation France. Over 200,000 drawings were used in the film, with a crew of 120 “clean-up artists” spending 18 months drawing cleaner and more refined lines over the existing animation. Despite numerous setbacks and delays, the film was finally completed in mid-2000.

The Emperor’s New Groove was released on December 15, 2000, to mostly positive reviews from critics. Variety felt the film “established a new attitude in the halls of Disney’s animation unit,” while Entertainment Weekly called it a “hip, funny, mostly nonmusical, decidedly non-epic family picture, which turns out to be less of a hero’s journey than a meeting of sitcom minds.” Roger Ebert called the film “a goofy, slapstick cartoon” that ” doesn’t have the technical polish of a film like Tarzan, but is a reminder that the classic cartoon look is a beloved style of its own.”

The reaction from the general public was far more muted, with The Emperor’s New Groove opening in fourth place during its U.S. opening weekend with a disappointing gross of $10 million. The film would only gross $89.3 million by the end of its theatrical run, with an additional $80 million internationally for a mediocre total gross of $169 million worldwide. This was the lowest box office result for a feature-length Disney animated film since The Rescuers Down Under (alright, technically Fantasia 2000 was lower, but it was an experimental package film, so it doesn’t really count) and represented a massive failure for the studio, especially considering the time, money, and resources that had gone into the film’s disastrous production.

Practically everything garnered for this article regarding the tumultuous production process has been ascertained from Styler’s behind-the-scenes documentary, The Sweatbox, which was named for the screening room at the Disney studio in Burbank. With unprecedented access to the cast and crew, Styler’s film chronicles the early days of the process where Allers and Dindal gush over the bold direction of their project before everything literally spirals out of control. It’s an intimate look at the complicated process of filmmaking that also offered a glimpse at a studio essentially in freefall.

Around the halfway mark of the documentary, we witness the disastrous day an early storyboarded cut of the film is screened for the studio executives, whose disappointed reactions have drastic consequences for everyone involved with the production. From here, Styler captures the pain and anguish felt by figures like Allers, Dindal, and Sting, as they begin to realise the production they had been slaving over for four years is slowly being ripped away from them. Many have long suspected all was not well at the Disney studio in the late 1990s, and this documentary stands as a blinding example of the chaos within the studio’s walls.

After premiering at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, Disney quietly put the documentary in their vault and have never given the film an official release. Elements of the documentary were used to craft a making-of featurette for the song “My Funny Friend and Me” for the film’s DVD release, but it’s completed form was not widely seen until it leaked online in 2012. As such, it now exists only through sources like YouTube, with Disney regularly having the title pulled from the video platform via copyright claim. If you’re interested in seeing this fascinating documentary, it’s not hard to find with a quick Google.

In many ways, The Emperor’s New Groove was a major departure for the Disney studio, which may explain why it was such a financial failure. After a decade of films rooted in musical sensibilities, it was a curious choice to see the studio begin the new millennium with not one, but two non-musical properties. While Dinosaur proved to be a roaring success, audiences clearly weren’t interested in a buddy comedy starring a talking llama voiced by David Spade. And therein lies this film’s biggest challenge.

For much of the narrative, Kuzco is a genuinely unlikeable character, which was essentially a first for Disney animation. Disney animated protagonists could be complicated and flawed characters, but they were still inherently lovable. While Spade provided the character with the humour, Kuzco is a protagonist devoid of any heart until the third act. You could even say he’s the film’s secondary villain for a large portion of the storyline. It’s a refreshing approach to a Disney film, but it’s a jarring change from the style of characterisations generations had come to expect from the studio of instantly lovable animal characters like Winnie the Pooh, Bambi, and Dumbo.

In a strange twist, you may actually find yourself sympathising more with the film’s apparent antagonist Yzma. Despite her lust for power for seemingly personal reasons, she’s clearly far more capable at ruling an empire than a selfish, egomaniac like Kuzco. The emperor is so busy living his extravagant self-indulgent lifestyle, perhaps Yzma simply had no choice but to rule in his absence, making her dismissal actually feel rather unfair. It doesn’t help matters Kitt can’t help but completely steal every damn scene of this film with her deliciously intoxicating and wickedly maniacal performance.

Despite its basic animation (which makes total sense when you appreciate the haphazard nature of its creation) and messy narrative, The Emperor’s New Groove is a refreshing change of pace for a studio stuck in a generic process of pumping out gushy romance stories or artistically impressive but narratively dull pieces of cinema. Given its turbulent production process, it’s a miracle the film even exists at all, let alone be wonderfully entertaining and sharply humorous.

With a production peppered with setbacks and rewrites, The Emperor’s New Groove could have easily been an incoherent mess, so it’s a testament to the production team they were able to deliver an entirely enjoyable final product. While Allers original version might have been something remarkable and groundbreaking, the reworked version still delivered a great animated film that has already stood the test of time. However, the chaos behind the scenes at the Disney studio only gets worse from here, as do most of the films.

Is The Emperor’s New Groove a Disney Classic? This film has an enormous fanbase and its popularity has grown exponentially since its release in 2000. In the annals of Disney history, it certainly stands out as something wildly unique, especially its lack of musical numbers. If a Disney animated film has aged remarkably well over two decades, one has to consider that a Disney Classic, right?

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