26 March 2012

LAWS, SAUSAGES, AND CORPORATE ANIMATION

In the late 1990s, noted English music artist Sting was hired by Walt Disney Feature Animation to write the songs for a new film the studio was developing, titled Kingdom of the Sun. He agreed, including the small proviso that his wife, movie producer Trudie Styler, be allowed to tag along to make a documentary about the process of writing an animated musical. Disney acquiesced, and Styler made her directorial debut alongside her regular collaborator John-Paul Davidson with The Sweatbox, named for the screening room where Disney animators show their works-in-progress to the executives and other moneymen.

And that is where things stopped for a long, long time. The Sweatbox premiered at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, and Disney managed to snatch it up and shove it deep into the same cubbyhole where they keep the last surviving prints of Song of the South and the frames of Sunflower the black centaurette from Fantasia. As will happen when an artifact seen by virtually no-one is clamped down upon, the film started to accrue myths and legends: mostly of the "it makes post-Renaissance Disney look like a pit of monstrously stupid whores" variety, undoubtedly encouraging Disney to clamp down even harder.

Then, for about two days from 20 March to 22 March, 2012, the damn thing just showed up on YouTube (and on the 23rd, legendary animator Glen Keane resigned from Disney, which is probably a coincidence, but an enjoyable one). And since I am surrounded by kindly readers who know that I have some small affection for Disney animation, a small cluster of people made sure I was aware of this fact, though in the end I had to acquire it from another kindly reader who desires to stay anonymous. And now, thanks to all of these individuals, I can review it for the rest of you: the notorious, infamous, Disney-bashing The Sweatbox.

Or not. Really, I'm a bit confused why the company is so freaked out by this: it's only marginally more salacious than Waking Sleeping Beauty, Disney's in-house documentary about its legacy of missteps and fuck-ups, and all in all, it's as evenhanded, fair, and insightful as a movie, co-directed by Sting's wife, about Sting getting shafted by a massive entertainment corporation could ever hope to be. Better yet, it's perhaps the most inquisitive and detailed look at the process of making an animated movie that has ever been assembled, coming as it does from an outside perspective and freed of the requirement of Disney's own making of specials and DVD featurettes to pull extra duty as propaganda and advertisement. It is, for the most part, a film about a process; a uniquely torturous process, even by the often chaotic standards of filmmaking-by-committee, but a process that ultimately did do the thing it was set up for, whatever any of the rest of us might think of it morally or aesthetically.

For those not in the know: Kingdom of the Sun eventually saw release as The Emperor's New Groove in the 2000 holiday movie season, making very little money along the way, though it was by no means an exceptionally explosive bomb by the standards of early-'00s Disney animation. The story of how a serio-comic period musical riffing on The Prince and the Pauper in pre-Columbian Peru turned into a zany buddy comedy drawing more from the Warner and UPA stylistic grab-bags than anything in Disney's own history is the bulk of the film's subject, and Styler and Davidson can count themselves lucky for being among those documentarians who happened to be standing still while an extraordinary movie happened all around them, although Styler perhaps does not count herself lucky for having to share a home with Sting while all of this was happening.

The broad outlines of the story have been there to be known by those as are interested ever since 2000: director Roger Allers, who had taken the flailing production of King of the Jungle and brought the unprecedented blockbuster The Lion King out of the scraps, was developing an epic story of history and life based on the day/night cycle, and it was to be as earnest and serious as any Disney film had ever been, spiked with a cackling, comic villain played by Eartha Kitt and genial, wisecracking protagonists played by David Spade and Owen Wilson. The under-performance of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules right in a row had put the fear into the higher-ups that full musicals and (for the first two) "serious" animated films were too shaky at the box office to justify keeping them in the pipeline, and it became increasingly clear that the movie Allers was making wasn't the movie that Animation division president Peter Schneider and his second in command Tom Schumacher wanted; eventually, Kingdom of the Sun was forced onto a course-correction that sucked out all the seriousness and music in favor of something frivolous and fun and above all cheap, under the guidance of Allers's co-director Mark Dindal.

It's not really the point of the movie, but the glimpses we get of Kingdom of the Sun, which was quite a long way into production when shit went down, are probably the most exciting parts of it for an animation buff: Disney is notoriously tight with letting their dead ends get any public air. We don't get enough of that material in The Sweatbox to answer the question of whether Allers's dream project would have been better or worse than the movie that came out - my own opinion is that the footage looks awfully Pocahontas-ey, and I am anyway not that much of a Lion King fan and don't think Allers deserves the benefit of the doubt; beyond which, The Emperor's New Groove is one of the least-typical projects in Disney's history, with an appealing stripped-down visual style that was a requirement of the incredibly shot time the movie had in which to be put together after Kingdom of the Sun was closed down. So personally, I will side with Schneider and Schumacher in this case, and not Allers and Sting.

Be that as it may, The Sweatbox is not putting forth the argument that Disney screwed the pooch by turning an epic into a farce; it puts forth the argument that Jesus Christ, these animated movies are nightmares to put together. It is a movie about the tortured process of moviemaking, in which egos are bruised and talanted, passionate people are quietly thrown on the ash-heap by executives straining so hard to keep their grins in place, you can almost see the sweat, though for as much as Schneider and Schumacher come across as glad-handlers, Styler and Davidson certainly don't embarrass them; it's quite clear that what they want is a movie that will do better with middle American audiences than Hunchback, because it is their job to want that.

And at the same time, you really have to feel for the artists pursuing Kingdom of the Sun with all their hearts: from Allers, who takes the news of his baby's death with the taciturn nobility of a man who genuinely believes that the greater good is more important than his ambitions, to animator Andreas Deja, a round-faced German who can't even pretend to hide his sadness that his dream of making a top-notch Disney villainess cannot possibly survive in the new project (he quit the character, rather than shepherd her de-evolution into the brunt of slapstick), to Sting, who's just unbearably tired by the end of it, less complaining at the end when he says that the project has gone beyond the time he allotted for it, than he is observing the cosmic unfairness of life.

The production's transition from ambition and enthusiasm to the "OMG let's get this done now" chaos of the end is reflected in the structure of the documentary itself, which starts off as a bubbly, almost EPK-like mix of test animation and genial talking heads, until at the end Styler and Davidson seem to be intruding their camera in the faces of people who would resent it, if they had any energy left for resentment, giving it a feel about as far from promotional lightness as possible. Not that The Sweatbox is a particularly exciting piece formally, for at all turns it is clearly being driven and shaped by its content, but that content is so fascinating and indeed unique that it ends up being enough for the filmmakers simply to wrangle it into a clear shape that brings us through the three year hell with clarity if not always enough context (at a minimum, The Sweatbox needs you to have seen the finished Emperor's New Groove to be able to follow along, and knowing names like Andreas Deja, Peter Schneider, and Roy Disney outside of this film could only be useful). But it's still one of the most unvarnished and bias-free studies of American animation that I can name, whatever else it lacks in explication, and even simply as a story of an artist in one medium being thrust into the strange bureaucracy of an entirely different art form and economic world - Sting in Wonderland, if you will - The Sweatbox is a making-of documentary that legitimately deserves comparison to the masterpieces of the form, films like Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams, where the focus is on the human toll of the process and not the end result. It is shy of being a masterpiece, but an excellent depiction of the nuts and bolts of animation that in its own cocked way pays tribute to the Disney process: if a film could endure this much endless shit and still come out as a functional object, they must be doing something right. At any rate, we don't need any more reasons to bag on the Walt Disney Company for hiding artifacts that absolutely deserve to see the light of day; but of all the things I have personally watched in despite of that company's wish that I hadn't, The Sweatbox is readily the most valuable both as a leaning tool for the Disney scholar and as a movie in its own right.

1 comment:

Trish said...

I watched this over the weekend expecting something on the order of the "Lost in LaMancha" of animation. It's... not that, but it is very interesting to see.

Funny thing is, Disney has done everything to bury "Sweatbox" while "Dream On, Silly Dreamer" is readily available for around two bucks on iTunes. And "DOSD" is by a country mile the more damning film.