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In Search of "The Sweatbox"

In Search of "The Sweatbox"

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I just got this e-mail from someone deep inside Disney Toon Studios:

Jim -

I know a lot of Disneyana fans out there are already carping about "Bambi II." Complaining that this direct-to-video film is really just another unnecessary sequel. Well, wait 'til these folks get a look at "The Emperor's Newer Groove." It's the first film that Disney Toon studio has ever produced that actually makes fun of the fact that it's an unnecessary sequel.

As for a release date ... Look for this "Groove" follow-up to show up in stores sometime in late 2005 / early 2006.

Speaking of "Groove" related stuff ... Have you heard if Buena Vista Home Entertainment is ever going to release "The Sweatbox" on video and DVD? Man, I'd love to have a copy of that documentary in my Disney film library.

Manco ... er ... I meant "Kuzco"

You and me both, brother. You and me, both.

For those of you who don't know: "The Sweatbox" is this allegedly amazing documentary that Trudie Styler (AKA Mrs. Sting) made about the production of "The Emperor's New Groove." A film that the Walt Disney Company has been keeping under very tight wraps since Ms. Styler's movie first began making the rounds at the festival circuit back in 2002.

"Just how tight?" you ask. Well, let me tell you this story that someone at Pixar recently told me.

It seems that -- in mid-2002 -- the folks at Pixar Animation Studio wanted to hold a screening of "The Sweatbox" for all of the employees working at their Emeryville, CA. studio. So -- after a little negotiation -- Disney agreed to send a copy of the film up to Pixar ... provided that the print was always accompanied by a Disney studio representative.

And when I say "always," I mean "ALWAYS." The story that I hear is that "Monsters, Inc." director Peter Docter actually offered to take the print's guardian down to Café Luxo for a quick bite to eat. The Disney studio representative refused, allegedly saying: "If I ever let this copy of 'The Sweatbox' out of my sight, it could wind up costing me my job."

Was the print's guardian being overly paranoid? Not according to what I've heard. "The Sweatbox" supposedly puts Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher, the then-heads of Disney Feature Animation, in such a bad light that the Mouse was determined to do whatever it could to prevent additional copies of this documentary from circulating. Even if it meant sending out individual prints of "The Sweatbox" out accompanied by their very own bodyguards.

"What is it about 'The Sweatbox' that puts the management of Disney Feature Animation in such a bad light?" you query. Well -- because Trudie was the wife of the film's composer, Sting -- Ms. Styler was given amazing behind-the-scenes access. She (and her co-director John-Paul Davidson) turned on their cameras in 1997, just as development was first getting underway on "Kingdom of the Sun." More importantly, Trudie kept things in perspective -- and in focus -- when this production suddenly hit the rocks in mid-1999. Resulting in "Kingdom"'s original director -- Roger Allers -- leaving "Kingdom," and the entire film getting a top-to-bottom make-over from the project's new director, Mark Dindal.

From what I've heard from those who actually got to see "The Sweatbox" during its limited run at LA's Beverly Center Cineplex as well as the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002, this film is actually puts a pretty positive spin on the whole creative process at Disney Feature Animation. Demonstrating how -- even when films unexpectedly go off the track -- the Mouse Factory still had the talent on hand to help set things right.

Or -- rather -- Disney USED TO have the talent on hand to repair run-away projects like "Kingdom of the Sun." Given all the staff cuts that have been made at Feature Animation over the past three years, one wonders if the Mouse would actually ever be able to pull off another one of these come-from-behind repair jobs again. Where troubled films like "Kingdom of the Sun" and "Sweating Bullets" are fixed on the fly ... eventually to become truly funny pieces of entertainment like "The Emperor's New Groove" and "Home on the Range."

But -- because "The Sweatbox" supposedly revealed a little too much confusion at WDFA's corporate level -- Disney studio execs supposedly arranged for Styler and Davidson's documentary to be stashed away deep in the Mouse House vault. Never to be seen again.

Which is a real shame. Particularly now that Disney seems to be determined to leave traditional animation behind forever. So that WDFA can finally be competitive with strictly CG operations like Pixar and Blue Sky.

So -- when you think about "The Sweatbox" that-a-way -- Styler and Davidson's documentary isn't just a record of how one film suddenly went wrong during its production. It's actually a film that captures the end of an era. Back when Disney Feature Animation was still at the height of its powers. Before the continuing staff cuts and this division's continuing morale problems brought the "Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation" to an abrupt close.

That's why I -- and many other Disney animation history fans -- view "The Sweatbox" as a very important documentary. And that's why we continue to push Disney management, trying to persuade the nice folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment to make Styler and Davidson's documentary available for sale on home video and DVD.

To date, our pleas have fallen on deaf Mouse-shaped ears. Disney management is still supposedly so embarrassed by what "The Sweatbox" reveals that they're determined to keep this film locked in the vault forever. And (to my knowledge, anyway) no bootleg version of Styler and Davidson's documentary has ever emerged.

Which -- given the security that Disney supposedly sent along to Pixar when "The Sweatbox" was to have been screened in Emeryville -- I guess we can understand why no dupes of the film have ever surfaced on the collector's market. To date.

Well, here's hoping that the management at the Walt Disney Company eventually loosens up. And that -- someday soon -- a video and DVD version of Styler and Davidson's documentary eventually becomes available for sale. So that -- for once and for all -- we can all find out what exactly it is about "The Sweatbox" that makes WDFA management sweat so much.

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