The Sweatbox (2003)

Running time: 86 minutes
Directors: John-Paul Davidson and Trudie Styler

This is the first time a documentary crew have been allowed inside the workings of an animated Disney film, and it will probably be the last — and therein lies a lot of the problem. As this film clearly illustrates, Disney desperately needs to open up it’s film process to people with some actual artistic/creative vision. The people who start these films, and the people who work on these films, are all people of that calibre. It’s the Disney executives (in this case, just two very bizarre people) who sit in judgment of the artists that drive the filmmakers (and the audience) up a wall. These guys are two of the most arrogant, snobbish, uncreative pencil-pushers ever seen on film. They quite clearly brown-nosed their way into these jobs and would be objects of utter ridicule (even without their funny speaking voices) at any other studio. That none of the animators has the balls to say “who the hell are you people? What awards have you won? What creative vision have you ever displayed? How dare you sit in god-like judgment of my work?” is a major disappointment, and our hearts break right along with the animators when High & Mighty (as my little group dubbed them) savage their years-long efforts and completely destroy their work in a matter of seconds.

The Sweatbox purports to document the making of what eventually became The Emperor’s New Groove, but is in reality the story of two films: Kingdom of the Sun was the first attempt, and by all accounts it looks like a fascinating film — but it bears little resemblance to what eventually appeared. Disney probably gave permission for this thinking it would make a great addition to the DVD, but I assure you there is nobody at Disney who thinks that now.

While nobody (obviously) says the slightest thing bad about Disney in the course of the film (except for one outsider who’s remarks are actually applauded by the audience!), it’s crystal clear to the viewer where the real problems in that division lie. I noticed that as soon as Roy Disney got involved (rather late in the day), things immediately began to improve. Roy is also the source of some pretty candid comments about the whole mess, which is surprising given his high position in the company.

The Sweatbox will probably come as a huge eye-opener for anybody who actually liked The Emperor’s New Groove and/or Disney animated films in general, and will probably come as a disappointment to animators and other creative types who had entertained thoughts of ever working there. A stronger anti-recruitment film is hard to imagine, given the ruthless and uncaring executives, the cuckolded animators and the enormous amount of long hours and wasted work involved. If it wasn’t for the electrifying presence of Eartha Kitt (who contributed vocals to both versions) and the funny comments from David Spade, this film would be downright morbid.

The one criticism I have of The Sweatbox itself is that it divides it’s time between being an exposé of the inner turmoil behind a Disney animated movie, and a profile of/documentary about/love letter to Sting. Apparently the project started off focusing on Sting’s contribution to the soundtrack of the original film, or perhaps when things got ice-cold over at Disney the filmmakers sought to salvage their project by focusing on someone completely free to speak his mind.

Sting takes up about half the picture, and amusingly enough every single freakin’ time we see him he’s in a completely different locale. From his sprawling estate in England to the squalid streets of India to the hi-rise hotels of New York City to the stages of Paris, the filmmakers manage to grab a few precious moments with Sting. Sharp-eyed audiance members may notice that the film is “co-directed” by Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, and this may account for more than a little of the Sting-heaviness (and split focus) of the film. If you’re a fan of Sting’s music or interested in the process, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not …

To his great credit, Sting provides the “voice of the audience” on a number of occasions. He is quite shocked to hear that most of his material will not be used (twice over), unlike the cuckolded animators, and makes his opinions on the state of things known. At one point he writes a scalding letter to High & Mighty (which they pretend isn’t about them) lambasting the waste of time, money and effort both on his part and on the part of the company. It is this letter, ironically, which gets Roy Disney involved and the project appears to get on track (at last!) very shortly thereafter.

The greatest sadness comes from the fact that this is exactly the sort of thing Disney should put on the Emperor’s New Groove DVD, as an honest document of the pain and work involved in bringing such a film out at all. It is the kind of documentary that every Disney executive should watch over and over until they get it: Pixar, for example, does not have these kinds of problems, and I can immediately think of two reasons why that is. Hopefully somebody at Disney will have the personal temerity to actually sit down and watch this film and then make the changes needed to the Animation Dept. to get them back doing films that not only meet the Disney standard of quality but actually move the company forward. Empire of the Sun would have been such a film — rich in the Disney tradition yet larger and wider in scope, more international (and with more international appeal), more sophisticated to match today’s more sophisticated audiences (yes, even the children), a film that might actually make critics stand up and take notice rather than just dismiss it as a good or bad “Disney film,” a classification that has become synonymous with “safe but tired family fare.”

My recommendation: Recommended — particularly for Disney executives and underpaid, under-appreciated employees.

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