Into the Groove
You can't always get what you want. Sometimes, even in the labyrinthine world of moviemaking, you might just get something better. Six years ago Walt Disney Pictures began work on a dramatic animated feature called Kingdom of the Sun, inspired by a pre-Columbian civilization and featuring a score by Sting. In 1996, the film's creative team traveled to Peru to observe the cultural treasures of the Incan civilization, and found themselves dazzled by some of the most beautiful stonework, pottery and tapestries ever created. But the solemn tone of Kingdom of the Sun did not lend itself to the happy, optimistic nature of the Disney philosophy, and soon the filmmakers found themselves abandoning history-except for the magnificent designs they discovered in Peru-and creating a fantasy empire that, well, reflects the studio's love of laughter and good fellowship and family fun as much as anything else.
Instrumental in the The Emperor's New Groove's journey from serious epic to family comedy was director Mark Dindal. "Randy [Fullmer] was the first to contact me," he recalls. "We worked on The Little Mermaid together. I had gone off and pursued other things and when I was finished with that, he gave me a call and asked if I would like to join the team. It was tough working on Kingdom of the Sun. You sit in the story rooms and try to figure out all of the things that aren't working, and it's always frustrating. You spend days in there and can't figure out a solution. There were elements that were fun, but also elements that didn't quite click....We spent a lot of time trying to figure them out, but we never could quite get them to work.
"Kingdom of the Sun was much more specific to a people and a place. The earlier version of this movie was comparatively dramatic. And I didn't feel that the historical civilization was appropriate for a comedy. The Emperor's New Groove, which grew out of these conferences, is much more fictitious. And it really should be that way, because it's more of a fun romp. If you're going to make a movie about a specific group of people, I'd think you'd want to treat them with respect and dignity."
Soft-spoken producer Randy Fullmer adds, "Visually, taking a group of filmmakers down to Peru really influenced the film a great deal. The Incan artwork from tapestries to pottery to baskets-everything that we saw-has the most beautiful designs, and the ability to caricature nature and spaces. Our art director Colin Stimpson was amazed that you could take designs right from pottery and blow them up enormously to make the whole face of a building. And we found the tapestries had such unexpected color palettes that the whole use of color in the movie was influenced by them."
Perhaps the fact that Dindal had not been involved the first few years allowed him to jump-start the development process. "We worked fairly quickly on the storyline," he insists. "Maybe within a couple of months, we had an idea of where we wanted to go and began storyboarding. And that idea continued to evolve for about a year past that point, but each day that you tackle it, it gets a bit more solid until you finally land on something where the pieces all fit."
"The new title, The Emperor's New Groove, was a collective thing," Fullmer explains. "What we did was run clips of the movie. We wanted a contemporary title and we liked the twist on 'Emperor's New Clothes.' We had lots of different names with 'llama' in them and were all over the map. At one time, as happens on a lot of these films, we had 300 titles that we played around with. And what everyone felt when we changed directions was that Kingdom of the Sun was a really good name for a film but had too much of the epic in it. The Emperor's New Groove gives a better sense of the fun that permeates the film."
The plot of the December release involves an arrogant young emperor, Kuzco (voiced by David Spade), who is turned into a llama by Yzma (voiced by Eartha Kitt), a royal advisor. Kuzco is befriended by Pacha (voiced by John Goodman), as generous as Kuzco is selfish, who helps Kuzco retain his throne. Along the way, Kuzco becomes a wiser, more loving. human being.
"Eartha Kitt and David Spade were cast before I joined the project," Dindal says. "And then John Goodman and Patrick Warburton [who played Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on the "Seinfeld" series] came aboard.
"In some ways, shooting an animated feature has to be frustrating for an actor," Dindal continues, "because they come in to record little pieces. And a year later, they record the same thing, but the story has evolved-which changes their reading. And they're probably never sure exactly what the main story is because they get little pieces at a time. It's all out of order, and it's probably very hard to decipher what this final movie is going to be like. Our things are just all spread out. You do the animation over here. And then months later, there's effects animation. And then months after that, there's color. Our character designer, Joe Moshier, is very skilled at making the principals appealing-clean, crisp sort of designs that have a likeable quality. He's really good at that."
Surprisingly, merchandising for The Emperor's New Groove has been kept to a minimum. "There's not tons of merchandising tied to the release," admits Fullmer. "Publishing did a really great job with a number of books. Sony did interactive games and play-stations. And there are a number of interactive games for each child's level of comprehension. I think that the world has shifted a bit in terms of the saturation of how many people are making movies and how many products are out there in the marketplace. Maybe part of the reason we're not producing as many tie-ins was that our story changed at a critical time when plans might have been made for various kinds of merchandise.
"What I'm proudest of, in any case, is that the film will do really well, and I think the story will stand on its own. Just last week, we went to Denver and showed the film to a thousand people-parents and kids. It was overwhelmingly successful. The numbers were incredible. I'm giving you the honest facts. It hit every age. There's sophisticated humor that goes over the heads of kids at times, but there's plenty of slapstick and things they get. I think it's a really intelligently written comedy.
"What we try to do is layer lots of things....A couple of mothers told us they were completely thrilled with the fact that anybody could go see this movie, and there were moral values in it (although we did not hit them over the head with them). And one brought her five-year-old daughter and the mother reported there was not one time when she had to explain what was going on. The child completely got it.
"We are translating The Emperor's New Groove into 31 different languages," Fullmer asserts. "It will get worldwide distribution the way all of our films do. I'd say Disney's strongest market is in Europe, and I would expect The Emperor's New Groove to do well there, too."
Fullmer is eager to sing the praises of Sting. "It's been amazingly great working with Sting," he enthuses. "He's a perfectionist. He loves to get an assignment and figure it out. He's really a hard worker. That's been a really refreshing thing on this project-to meet people who are highly successful, and you realize it's because they work incredibly hard and they have passion for what they do, and they really pour themselves into it. Sting carved out a good chunk of time to work on The Emperor's New Groove. He had written a number of songs for Empire of the Sun. but when we had significant story changes, he wrote new tunes."
"We would go and visit Sting," Dindal recalls, "and bring him storyboards to give him a sense of just what the characters were going through and the emotions behind the songs. We gave him as much information as we could in terms of that. And it worked both ways. Once, specifically, at the very end of the movie, he made an important suggestion to us. He had seen a screening, and the David Spade character at the beginning of the film is going to destroy a beautiful hilltop village to build a vacation home for himself. And the rough storyboard really depicted a place that almost felt like an amusement park, a place that would destroy the landscape. Through the course of the story, the character undergoes a transformation and finds friendship and compassion, but at the end of that version, he still built this giant, ugly amusment park thing. And it really gave the impression that Kuzco didn't learn anything. It was a terrific note. We certainly took it to heart, and rearranged the whole ending of The Emperor's New Groove so that you see a guy who becomes more a part of the environment rather than a destroyer of the environment."
All in all, the experience of making The Emperor's New Groove has encouraged the filmmakers to jump right back into the fire. "Mark and I are already working on another animated feature," Fullmer reveals. "It's a little early to discuss it at this point, but we are so excited about the group of people we assembled for this film that we didn't want to take six months or a year to kick back and play golf and stuff. We wanted to get going again as soon as possible with the same core group."