Thank you, Bilge Ebiri! Thak you for brightening this Wednesday and thus our whole damn week with this truly marvelous oral history of, as you describe it, “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.” That movie is The Emperor’s New Groove, a wild, improbable film that’s one of the best movies of 2000.
Normally in a Read This, we’d spend some time selling you on why this particular piece is worth reading, and we’d use some particularly engrossing excerpts to help things along. We are still going to include a few choice nuggets below, but we think Ebiri’s piece—a real page-turner, or whatever the online equivalent of a page-turner is—sells itself, if only because of the movie it concerns. If you’ve seen The Emperor’s New Groove, then love it or hate it, you already know how wild it is, in general but in particular as a Disney film. If you haven’t, then know that it’s impossible to read Ebiri’s account of its creation without wanting to press play. (That’s probably true if you’ve already seen it as well—it was for us.)
So, you should read it. The first thing to know is that it’s “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. [...] 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.”
The third movie is the behind-the-scenes documentary The Sweatbox, made by a team granted unprecedented access to the creative process—so unprecedented that Disney never released it, beyond a brief Academy-qualifying run. (Put it on Disney+, you cowards!) It’s a story of heartbreak and bizarrely specific product placement and the excellence of Eartha Kitt; it involves office chair races and a really detailed joke about a space station launch and many other delightful things you’ve just got to read. Seriously, click! It is worth it! Here, to further incentivize you, are a few choice bits. First, a trampoline:
[Director Mark] Dindal: Story rooms, often someone will pitch an idea almost as a joke and then someone else goes, “That’s funny. But what are we really going to do?” This was the only movie I worked on where someone pitched an idea like that and we went, “Let’s use that.” Like Yzma, [who’s been turned into a] kitten, is falling off the tower and we’re like, “How are we going to get her back up? She’s not going to splat.” I don’t remember if it was Dave or Don Hall, another story artist who’s become a director since, said, “What if there’s a trampoline salesman at the bottom and she hits that and bounces back up?” We said, “Oh yeah. That’s what it should be.” You can’t imagine a story session in Bambi where somebody says that. This quickly became a movie where a trampoline salesman makes sense.
Second, Adam West:
We had a whole version where Pacha takes Kuzco [played by Spade] to the top of the mountain. He comes up with this idea: If we can keep him here as this talking llama, he’ll get to know the people and won’t want to displace them. So Pacha, John Goodman, says to all the villagers, “Listen, this llama thinks he’s the Emperor. Just play along.” So Kuzco is walking around, going, “I’m your emperor.” And everybody goes, “Yes, sire.” We actually had Adam West come in and play a part. He comes up and says, “Your Highness. I know it’s you.” He goes, “The rebels are ready to help you escape.” The thing is, Kuzco finds that Adam West is crazy; his army is a bunch of scarecrows. But anyway, [Adam West’s character] said, “When I see you, I’ll call you.” And the call was like the whip-poor-will sound. Then I said to Mark, “Wait a second. Have him say the word as if he’s making a call.” So Adam West just went, “Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!” Literally saying the word. That killed everybody. We ended up cutting that whole part of the movie — literally four or five months of story work, gone.
And finally, not so much an excerpt as a tease of the story’s absolutely killer kicker:
That’s not poetry, that’s an actual fact. Read it! Reeeeeeeead itttttttttttt. We promise you won’t regret it.
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