It is hard to keep a streak of success running non-stop in the film industry. As I discussed in may critique of Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) last week, you often see once mighty power players within the business like Disney Animation come crashing back to Earth unexpectedly, even at points where it seemed like the sky is the limit. In fact, it really is something that more often than not happens very frequently in the field of animation. Because an animated movie takes so long to produce (on average about 4-5 years), it becomes extremely hard to course correct once the market has shifted all of a sudden, and what seemed like a sure thing at the start of production might end up being out of sync upon completion. That was certainly the dilemma that Disney Animation faced at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000. What started out as a massive era of growth and success under the Disney Renaissance, with massive hits like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) all building on top of each other, began to wane by the end of the decade, with lower box office returns not being able to offset the growing costs. Disney in many ways became too successful too quickly, and were unable to sustain the empire that they had manage to build up. And with the growing competition from new rival Dreamworks, and the market being led more towards Computer Animation thanks to their partnership with Pixar, Disney quickly had to rethink their priorities. This would involve making the hard choice of having to either halt, revise or completely scrap movies already long in development in order to reorganize for the coming years ahead. This was the condition that encircled what was to be the next big Disney epic that was follow in the line of the past Renaissance era classics; the South American set Kingdom of the Sun.
Kingdom of the Sun began development in 1994, right off the heels of The Lion King’s record shattering success. Like the other movies given the greenlight during the decade, Kingdom was developed to spotlight a different cultural texture that had not yet been explored in animation, much like what The Lion King did for Africa, and what the upcoming Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) were going to do for Native American and Chinese cultures respectively. Kingdom of the Sun was to be set in ancient Incan society, with much of the animation taking inspiration from various Paleo-American influences. But, despite the cultural influence, the story that Disney was planning to tell, was not all that unfamiliar to American audiences. The plot was in fact going to be a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. There have been many versions of this story told over the years, and in fact Disney had done one themselves only 5 years prior; a half-hour short starring Mickey Mouse that was played in front of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) in theaters. This version in Kingdom of the Sun would, however, involve a magical twist, with an evil sorceress named Yzma switching the Emperor with his llama herder lookalike, and having the Emperor be turned into a llama himself, so that no one would recognize him. It of course wouldn’t be a Disney movie if there wasn’t magic involved somehow in the plot. What became a major selling point for the production was the aspect of it’s South American setting. Disney sent it’s team of artists to places like Macchu Picchu and the Incan capital of Kuzco to study the architecture and art of this lost society, and have it inform the look of the movie. The movie moved along at full steam ahead, with voice actors like David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, and Harvey Fierstein all lined up to play the leads, and a team of Disney’s top animators all working hard to bring the movie to life. However, as the returns for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) all disappointed at the box office, the Disney executives began to scrutinize the still in development projects a bit harder, and the hard truth became apparent; Kingdom of the Sun was just not working.
A major part of the problem was the fact that there was insurmountable division in the role of the directors. Roger Allers, who had previously helmed The Lion King alongside co-director Rob Minkoff, had begun Kingdom of the Sun as his own pet project, initially going solo in the director’s chair. But, as mounting costs and slow production began to plague the film, Disney executives enlisted another director to take some of the burden of Allers shoulders and also a bit more humor into the movie. Mark Dindal, a one-time effects animator who left Disney briefly to direct the movie Cats Don’t Dance (1997) at Warner Brothers, brought a more Looney Tunes-esque sensibility to his style of directing animation, and it was apparent very quickly that this clashed with Allers more epic grandeur sense of direction. Pairing up directors on a project had long been a norm in Animation, with most of the Disney Renaissance classics being made by the iconic teams of John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Allers of course had worked well with Rob Minkoff on Lion King, but Minkoff had already left Disney at this point to direct the live action Stuart Little (1999), and Mark Dindal was just not the same kind of collaborator. And not only that, but Disney was now threatening to tighten up the budget even more and demand more changes. So, amidst insurmountable creative differences, Allers left the production, with rough animation almost 70% complete and finished animation almost at 20%. There was no doubt about it, Disney had already poured a lot of money and resources into a movie that was not working and had just lost it’s primary driving force. So this was the crossroads point; either move ahead and complete the movie, or cut the losses and cancel the whole thing.
Strangely enough, Mark Dindal, who came into the project late in development, was adamant about salvaging this troubled film. He also received back up from the film’s producer Randy Fullmer. Together they appealed Disney for a stay of execution so that they could rework the movie into something they could finish on time and on budget. Disney, who were initially inclined to scrapping the film, were swayed by Dindal and Fullmer’s appeal, but on this one condition; that they have their new pitch ready in only 6 weeks. That’s an extremely short amount of time to create a new story from scratch, no matter what medium of film you work in, and the two poor filmmakers had to make it happen in the notoriously slow moving process that is animation. But, Dindal and Fullmer spent those next few weeks going through the remains of Kingdom of the Sun to find anything that they could to salvage. Gone was the Prince and the Pauper storyline and the more epic scale grandeur of the setting. Most of the cast of characters were either scrapped or reworked, with only the David Spade’s Emperor and Earth Kitt’s Yzma making the cut intact. Perhaps the most painful revision made to the movie was the removal of the musical numbers written by famed recording artist Sting. Sting was the next in line of pop artists like Elton John and Phil Collins who was going to have his chance to orchestrate a full musical score for a Disney movie. In fact, he was so excited to work on the film, that he had his romantic partner Trudie Styler document his creative process for an upcoming documentary to coincide with the movie’s release. Unfortunately, in the midst of the film’s shake-up, all but two of the songs Sting wrote were scrapped, leaving him decidedly upset. Sting obliged with his contractual duties through the rest of the film’s production, but ever since, he’s remained at arms length with anything Disney related. It was hard, difficult surgery, but Dindal and Fullmer managed to get their pitch completed in a record amount of time, and to everyone’s surprise, Disney granted them the chance to finish the film.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Disney decided to move forward was because Mark Dindal and Randy Fullmer pitched them a film that was very much streamlined. Instead of a grandiose, epic musical, this new film would be much more of a screwball comedy, in line with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges. Normally this would have been off brand for Disney, but given that it came at a time of belt-tightening at the studio, the production benefitted from a different set of priorities, especially after $50 million had already been spent. So, where to go after that. Given that the movie was taking a more screwball approach to the comedy, it meant that they needed to put more emphasis on the characters themselves, making them the driving force of the movie’s humor. The once epic movie cast was dwindled down to just a main cast of four. The Emperor, now named Kuzco, was reworked to better reflect the persona of the actor playing him; comedian David Spade. Spade had survived the culling of the original film, retaining his role intact, but this new direction in a way was better suited for his talents. Spade’s career has largely been shaped around performing as a smarmy, take no prisoners social observer, often with biting put downs of famous targets. He’s played this kind of self-absorbed character in various Saturday Night Live sketches and in movies, and it matched the persona they needed for the Emperor Kuzco perfectly. Though the filmmakers leaned more into Spade’s persona for the character, they completely overhauled the film’s other lead into something completely different. The poor llama herder, Pacha, was changed from Kuzco’s lookalike to a middle aged, broad shouldered man who is saddled with having to save the smug, selfish ruler once Kuzco is transformed into a llama (another carry over from the original film). Owen Wilson was dropped out and replaced with John Goodman, whose gruff, wholesome delivery honestly balances off of Spade’s snark much better than Wilson’s performance would’ve.
The character least impacted by the change in the movie was the villain Yzma. Though her machinations changed a bit throughout the reorganization, there was little change to her as an asset to the movie, and her character design also remained constant throughout. Earth Kitt was saddened that she didn’t get her chance to sing in the finished film, with her Sting written villain song “Snuff out the Light” being one of the notable highlights in scrapped soundtrack. However, the more comical take on the film revealed something unexpected about Ms. Kitt’s talents, which is her surprising knack for comedy. Yzma is easily one of the funniest villains Disney ever written, and Eartha Kitt holds her own even in a cast of comedy heavy weights. The way she delivers hilariously dry lines like, “It’s called a cruel irony, like my dependence on you,” just shows you how masterfully she is able to balance salty menace with complete absurdity. It’s hard to know how much more impactful her performance might have been had the movie not changed, but she nevertheless made Yzma a worthy addition to the rogues gallery of iconic Disney villains. But what also worked well to the movie’s advantage, and honestly what possibly saved the movie as a whole, was the creation of an entirely new character named Kronk. Initially, in Kingdom of the Sun, no such villain sidekick existed. But, during an audition for a throwaway guardsman character, the filmmakers came across a small time character actor named Patrick Warburton, who at that time was best known for a recurring role as Elaine’s dim-witted boyfriend on Seinfeld. Warburton’s hilarious vocal performance delighted the filmmakers so much that they crafted this new character just for him, and it made a huge difference for the film. Warburton’s Kronk steals every moment he is on screen, whether he’s delighting in his culinary talents, conversing with squirrels, or consulting his “shoulder angel,” he’s hilariously on point, and the movie is far funnier because of it. The cool thing is, the was Patrick Warburton’s first ever role in animation, and in the 20 years since, he’s become one of the most sought after voice actors in the business, no doubt as a result of his stand out work here.
Throughout all the changes, it became clear that what Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer were working on was no longer the movie that it started out as, and this became apparent to everyone in Hollywood the moment the movie changed it’s name. Kingdom of the Sun unexpectedly was retitled The Emperor’s New Groove just a mere year left until it’s release. People were puzzled by this, because it was extremely off brand for Disney to give their movies a pun-filled title. Kingdom of the Sun invoked grandeur in the same way that The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had before. The Emperor’s New Groove sounded like a joke. Indeed, it looked like Disney had lost it’s mind at this point, and the outlook for the movie was not good. It was shoved off to mid-December, as opposed to the traditional mid-June or Thanksgiving weekends that had benefitted Disney in the past. In a way, it almost looked like Disney was trying to bury the movie, believing it would turn into a major embarrassment like The Black Cauldron (1985). Initially, it looked like that would be the case. It opened to mild box office, grossing $10 million opening weekend, which was a quarter of what Tarzan (1999) had made in it’s opening a year prior. But, the movie managed to stick around through the holiday season, not dropping out of the top ten for nearly two months, and in the end, it earned a respectable $95 million domestic. It’s still low box office, but not an embarrassment either. However, The Emperor’s New Groove‘s released was fortuitously timed for a different kind of market that would help it even more. In late 2000 and early 2001, Disney released their first batch of releases in the new home video format known as DVD. Along with some established classics, The Emperor’s New Groove was released as part of this new format, and was the newest film in the library as well, piquing interest among Disney fans who might have missed the movie the first time in theaters. To Disney’s surprise, Groove not only sold well, it became their top seller in the DVD market in it’s first year, ranking higher than classics like Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941). And the movie would continue to perform strong several year later. To everyone’s surprise, The Emperor’s New Groove became an underground hit.
No where else in the Disney canon will you find another movie that had a more unexpected outcome. The Emperor’s New Groove went from six weeks of near cancellation to becoming a cult favorite that endures to this day. There are a surprisingly large amount of people who even consider Groove to be among their favorite Disney movies overall, and some even put it at the top. I can’t say for sure what it is about the movie that connected so strongly with audiences. Perhaps it’s the uncharacteristic level of humor that makes it stand out among other Disney movies. The fact that it is irreverent, and is free of the many Disney clichés that people find refreshing. Who knows? 20 years later, I think that the story of how this movie rose from the ashes and managed to carve out it’s own road to success is it’s own fascinating story. Disney has been ruthless when it comes to scrapping troubled productions even after having fully announced them (see the history of the cancelled film Gigantic for example), so the fact that Emperor’s New Groove not only survived but thrived is something pretty special in the history of the company. The Emperor’s New Groove still lives on, spawning a direct-to-video sequel and a Saturday Morning cartoon spinoff. It also proves that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood. Sometimes sure things are doomed to fail, while potential disasters can manage to become a surprise success. Take it from this pandemic year, where we saw a Christopher Nolan film bomb while Sonic the Hedgehog became a box office hit. Movies have a way of surprising people, especially in the long run, and The Emperor’s New Groove is proof of that. It’s worth exploring the tumultuous history of this film more. Trudie Styler did compile all her footage together into a documentary called The Sweatbox (2002) and it chronicles first hand how Kingdom of the Sun fell apart behind the scenes. What’s most fascinating in her documentary is that it also features rough animation from the original film, the only parts that have managed to escape out of the Disney vaults. My hope is that a rough workprint of Kingdom of the Sun does see the light of day eventually, just so that we can all see what might have been. Even still, the fact that The Emperor’s New Groove managed to survive at all and become a long term success is something pretty miraculous in the world of animation. Perhaps, as a means of preserving their future, a “new groove” is exactly what Disney needed.