The Amazing Story of the Making of “The Emperor’s New Groove”

Published February 27, 2021
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is over at Vulture, so that future generations can know the extraordinary tale of how one of the greatest comedies ever made came into existence:

The story of the making of the 2000 movie The Emperor’s New Groove is actually the story of the making of three movies, only one of which can be legally seen today. First, there is The Kingdom of the Sun, an epic tale incorporating Inca myths, which was to be directed by The Lion King’s Roger Allers and would have starred Owen Wilson as a lowly llama herder bound to switch lives with a selfish, vain prince voiced by David Spade. The soundtrack was set to feature a whole series of songs written by Sting. The legendary Eartha Kitt would be the voice of a villainous sorceress determined to blot out the sun.

But after years of production snafus — of doubt-filled meetings and catastrophic screenings and arguments — Kingdom of the Sun was, in a stunning move, shelved. In its place came The Emperor’s New Groove, a raucous comedy directed by Mark Dindal, starring Spade as a selfish, vain emperor who involuntarily transforms into a llama and winds up befriending a kindly peasant, this one played by John Goodman. Eartha Kitt remained as the villain, now joined by a delightfully conflicted henchman voiced by Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton. New Groove would ultimately feature only two songs written by Sting — one, a Vegas-style number performed by Tom Jones, and the other, a closing credits song performed by Sting himself (for which he was nominated for an Oscar). Racing against an impossible deadline rumored to be imposed by an impending Happy Meal deal, the final film was, in the words of one its co-creators, the result of the “funniest writers’ room you could possibly have. A table of people who had nothing to lose.”

While all this was going on, however, there was a third movie — a behind-the-scenes documentary called The Sweatbox, directed by Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, and John Paul Davidson, which over the course of production went from being an informative making-of to a riveting, no-holds-barred, occasionally funny, often heartbreaking look at how the Disney sausage is made, and sometimes unmade. Premiering at festivals in 2002, The Sweatbox ultimately proved so awkwardly truthful that Disney has refused to release it, though the film does occasionally pop up on YouTube and torrent sites.

So, uh, how — and why — did all of this happen? Here is the oral history of The Emperor’s New Groove, an irreverent, pratfall-heavy, non sequitur of an animated movie that so defied Disney’s painstakingly deliberate traditions, it’s hard to believe it actually exists today.

Read the whole wondrous yarn here.

4 Responses

  1. I’ve only seen The Emperor’s New Groove” once, perhaps I should give it another look.

    My favorite “Disney that never was” story is the original Pocahontas. The title character would have been portrayed as a little girl with a comical turkey sidekick voiced by John Candy. Candy even recorded all the dialogue before they got Oscar hungry and changed it to be more “serious” and romantic. I think I read that it would have been his last released movie had they kept him in it.

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