Not so very long ago, the Disney company made lots of animated films – some of which were drawn by hand by real people. They made big pictures; after the success of The Lion King, the goal of Disney Feature Animation was to make sweeping epics – always hoping for another shot at Oscar gold. Hot off his success with Lion King – then the highest-grossing animated film ever – director Roger Allers began to develop a new project. This film, which eventually was called Kingdom of the Sun, was a South American twist on the old “Prince and the Pauper” tale set within the ancient Incan empire. There was drama, romance, comedy, and magic – it was a big film.
As producers tried to mimic everything they thought might have contributed to Lion King‘s success, they lined up yet another famous British singer/songwriter to compose songs for the film. As part of the deal to persuade Sting to sign on the dotted line, Disney had to give his wife a job filming all the behind-the-scenes material for the film’s eventual DVD. And so Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, began filming the creative process as Kingdom of the Sun kicked into production.
And then it all went pear-shaped.
The collapse of Kingdom of the Sun, and its resurrection under a different director as The Emperor’s New Groove, was captured by Styler’s cameras but never made it to DVD. When New Groove emerged on a feature-laden DVD in 2001, little mention was made that the film once featured completely different plotlines, characters and songs. Styler turned her material into a documentary, The Sweatbox, which was released in 2002. Disney actually owns the rights to the film, which – perhaps unsurprisingly – they have done their best to bury. The documentary has never been released, has never been included on any of the New Groove releases, and for twelve years I’ve tried to find a copy.
Yesterday, it appeared on YouTube.
Watch the production fall apart. Watch the carefully crafted dreams of filmmakers dashed by glib executives. Watch Sting become increasingly bored as he progresses from one palatial residence to another. Be warned, it appears to be an unfinished assembly edit and has a timecode at the bottom – it also has a couple of naughty words, if the kiddies are in the room. Watch, while you can:
Now wasn’t that interesting? This all happened at an interesting point in time, as the animation studio was well on its way into being mismanaged into oblivion by some of the executives you see in the documentary. Note that Michael Eisner appears not once in the film – even when he was present for events being depicted. It’s an incredible time capsule as you see all these important filmmakers and animators flit in and out, many of whom are no longer at Disney. We even get to see the dear departed Joe Ranft, who must have popped in from Pixar to help pitch story ideas.
I feel conflicted watching this film, as I always do when thinking about Kingdom in the Sun. I’m actually a big fan of The Emperor’s New Groove – I remember being shocked at the time that it turned out so well. I had followed the tortured development and had been shocked at what I thought was an absolutely awful name change, but the film turned out to be really fun.
At the same time, I’ve always wanted to see how Kingdom would have turned out. I’m a fan of animated epics, and Allers’s version of the film had some really compelling elements. I like some of the songs Sting had written for that version (which was much more of a traditional musical), and as you can see from this documentary, the loss of Andreas Deja’s work on Yzma was a huge blow. Without seeing the reels from this earlier version, it’s hard to say how well it flowed, or how compelling it was, or if it was a mess or not. But you can’t look at the clips from the prologue, or Deja’s musical number with Yzma, and tell me we didn’t lose some special things. I really, really would love to see more of that material (if you have access, drop me a line).
It’s a shame this documentary isn’t more readily available. It, better than anything I’ve ever seen, shows the truly gut-wrenching process of animation development in the modern era. And it shows more of the process than any DVD documentary Disney has released in at least a decade. I wish there was a film like this for Sweatin’ Bullets/Home on the Range, Rapunzel/Tangled, American Dog/Bolt, and even the forthcoming Frozen. When a film is in development for a decade, there are stories to tell. And, as you can see here, fully fleshed-out characters, songs, and scenes. That work – especially when you see work the caliber of Deja’s – doesn’t belong in a vault somewhere. It deserves to be seen.
Also, if we didn’t realize it before, Sting is absurdly rich. And rides ponies. And wears silly hats.
Finally, because I absolutely never get tired of looking at them, are a few of John Watkiss’s incredible concept pieces for Kingdom of the Sun: