20 years ago this month, Walt Disney Pictures dropped The Emperor’s New Groove into theaters. At the time, this tale of an obnoxious, self-centered Incan emperor named Kuzco (voiced by David Spade, of course)—who goes through a wild yet humbling adventure when he gets transformed into a llama and thrown out of his kingdom—was seen as something very rare for the Mouse Factory: an animated film steeped in comedic chaos. Sure, you could say Disney successfully hopped on the zany train with Aladdin. But the wackiness in that movie only went down whenever Robin Williams’ manic genie showed up. Right from jump street, everything about Groove is just wall-to-wall nuts. But it wasn’t always.
Until Groove, Disney had a respectable rep for coming up with feature-length cartoons that were epic in scale, bristling with Broadway-style musical numbers and often laced with straight-faced sincerity. Groove was supposed to be like that, back when its original name was Kingdom of the Sun. At first, the film was originally a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper, with Spade’s emperor—originally named Manco—switching places with lowly peasant Pacha (Owen Wilson) before the emperor’s turned into a llama by Yzma (Eartha Kitt), a scheming sorceress who also hatches a plan to get rid of the sun.
As you can tell, Kingdom had a lot going on in its plot. (I haven’t even gotten to the love quadrangle that happens between Manco, Pacha and two female characters.) Not to mention that it also had songs co-composed by Sting, ready and waiting to be placed at the right moments. Yes, it was designated to be another one of Disney’s mammoth, monster hits—that is, until Disney began figuring out how to turn all of this into a cohesive film.
This troubled production history can be seen in The Sweatbox, a 2002 documentary that chronicles the failed making of Kingdom and how it transitioned into Groove. Directed by Trudie Styler (Sting’s wife, who got to make the movie as part of his deal), the doc shows how original director Roger Allers (The Lion King) wanted to do a grand-scale film about Incan culture, even taking the production crew to Machu Picchu to study Incan artifacts and architecture. But as Allers and other animators began working on the film, eventually showing storyboarded footage they assembled to execs in the studio screening room (nicknamed “The Sweatbox” for not having air-conditioning), they’d soon have to get with not-so-enthusiastic Disney brass about what worked and what didn’t.
A lot was chucked out during production, which took up most of the ‘90s. A young Pacha was replaced by an older, family-man Pacha—voiced now by John Goodman—and the movie morphed into a buddy comedy. Yzma’s steal-the-sun subplot was scrapped and was replaced with her just wanting to take over Kuzco’s kingdom with her dunderheaded errand boy Kronk (Patrick Warburton). Veteran composer Marc Shaiman was brought in to score the film, but was soon replaced by someone else. Previous Sting songs were nixed and he had to work on new songs, including one that ended up being performed by Tom Jones.
It got to the point where Allers was squeezed out of the production and co-director Mark Dindal (Cats Don’t Dance), who was brought in to make things more comedic, took over the reins.
Sweatbox has never been officially released, even though there’s a rough cut of it on YouTube. It gives an inside look at how Disney films are mostly done by committee, often chiseling away at characters and subplots—and, occasionally, bringing those same characters and subplots back into play—until they get something that resembles a film for the whole family.
The movie became an insane ride for Disney animators, which explains why the movie itself became equally anarchic. As Kingdom turned into Groove, the film started loading up on wacky sight gags, fourth wall-breaking meta jokes and an unusual sense of unpredictable lunacy. The movie jacks more from Chuck Jones and the zany troublemakers who made the iconic Looney Tunes cartoons for Warner Bros. back in the day than anything Disney-related. Even though the animators have downplayed the Looney Tunes influence (on the DVD commentary for Groove, one animator discusses how he based one exasperated minor character after the working stiffs you regularly saw in Chuck Jones cartoons), anyone with a history of Bugs Bunny knows it’s there. There’s one sequence where Pacha’s unruly children humorously dispatch a snooping Yzma that practically seems like an homage to when Bugs Bunny took down a bull in the cartoon short “Bully for Bugs.”
Despite getting good reviews (the New York Times’ Stephen Holden called it “a timely reminder that animated films don’t have to be grandiose visual circuses with full Broadway scores to entertain”), Groove didn’t exactly rake it in when it was first released. On its opening weekend, it placed fourth behind What Women Want, Dude, Where’s My Car? and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Plus, family audiences were still flocking to 102 Dalmatians, another Disney movie that was open around that time. In the end, the $100 million Groove ended up grossing $169 million—not a total failure, but it still wasn’t as massive as previous Disney-animated films.
Groove eventually turned into a kid’s favorite (it was the top-selling home video release of 2001), even spawning an animated series (The Emperor’s New School) and a direct-to-video sequel (Kronk’s New Groove). But even though it’s one of the last 2D, hand-drawn animated films Disney released before they began following the Pixar business model and going all computer-animated, people forget how influential this bugnuts-crazy yarn has become. Groove practically ushered in all the screwball animated comedies that became commonplace in multiplexes these past two decades. Most of what DreamWorks Animation has dropped for kiddies over the years seems like it can be traced back to this one film, where a bunch of Disney animators threw their hands up and made an insane film they had an insane time conceiving.
The Emperor’s New Groove can be streamed on Disney+.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.