Film Review: The Sweatbox

If you are a fan of Walt Disney's animated movies, you've probably seen a number of making-of documentaries on the company's film-making process. The best publicly available film on modern Disney animation has been 2009's Waking Sleeping Beauty, which focused on the "renaissance" of the 1990s that began with The Little Mermaid and continued through The Lion King.

Waking Sleeping Beauty was remarkably candid for a Disney-approved production, but its honesty pales next to The Sweatbox, a warts-and-all examination of the troubled birth behind The Emperor's New Groove. Shot over a span of several years by Trudy Styler (wife of Sting, who wrote the film's songs), the film shows the sausage-making factory that was Walt Disney Feature Animation with unprescendented, even uncomfortable, inimacy.

Stripped of the usual soothing voice-over narration and glowing testimonials to Disney executive's omniscience, viewers become flies on the wall in tense story meeting and screening rooms, witnessing as the ambitious epic originally titled Kingdom of the Sun is whittled down to the slapstick buddy comedy that was eventually released in 2000.

Along the way, we get to meet great artists like director Roger Allers, composer Marc Shaiman, and animator Andreas Deja. All reflect heartbreakingly on having their months and years of hard work ultimately discarded from the project; Deja's unused pencil tests in particular indicate that his take on Yzma may have elevated that character to the upper pantheon of Disney vilianesses with Cruella and Maleficent. In the film's most dramatic sequence, Sting reads a scathing letter of resignation, objecting to the "Disneyfication" of the story's ending, only to be reigned back in by Roy E. Disney himself supporting Sting's critique.

Emperor's New Groove turned out to be a lightweight trifle that was more entertaining that it had any right to be, given its troubled gestation, but The Sweatbox gives a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. More controversially, it provides unflattering insight into the methodology of Disney executives like Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider. As a result, Disney has kept this documentary under tight wraps for over a decade, making it a long-sought "holy grail" for animation fanatics.

Fortunately, an unauthorized copy finally appeared on YouTube last week, briefly making the film broadly available for the first time. Naturally, it was taken offline within a couple days, but thanks to Michael Crawford of Progress City USA it can still be found on Vimeo. (Out of deference to Mickey's massive legal department I won't provide a direct link, but you should find it with a simple search). The copy available is a rough "work print" with time code markings obscuring some identifying subtitles, but it is still quite watchable.

Go now and check out this unique animation artifact, while you still have a chance!