12 Things You Didn't Know About The Chaos Behind-The-Scenes Of 'The Emperor's New Groove'

The Emperor's New Groove is a very different movie from what Disney typically produced up to the point of its release. The main character, Kuzco, is someone who works incredibly hard to make the audience absolutely despise him, and it's only through his hero's journey that he is finally redeemed in both the eyes of the audience and the other characters in the film. Making an animated Disney film is no easy task - especially during the age of traditional cel animation.

What most fans don't know is that there was so much behind-the-scenes drama going on, the movie almost never made it to fruition. This list highlights some of the more interesting aspects of the production of Disney's 40th animated classic, and after you read it, there's a good chance you'll want to watch it again... and appreciate what everyone went through to bring the project to life!


  • The Film Was Originally Going To Be An Epic Musical Titled 'Kingdom of the Sun'

    One of the key things that differentiate The Emperor's New Groove from most of the other Disney animated films (other than the nature of the main character) is that it's not a musical. Since the very beginning, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney films almost always featured big musical numbers, but not this movie. Granted, it's not the only movie to come without big musical numbers (looking at you, The Black Cauldron), but even with Kuzco's theme song guy, the film isn't really a musical. Nobody interrupts a scene by singing, which was definitely the norm for Disney flicks.

    Of course, that's what eventually was released, but in the beginning, the film was going to be completely different. It was titled Kingdom of the Sun, and it was to be an epic musical. Pre-production began in 1994, shortly after the release of The Lion King. The Incan culture was chosen by Roger Allers, one of the co-directors on The Lion King. He liked the idea of making a film that touched on the Incan creation myth, and he planned on basing his story on The Prisoner of Zenda, a story about a King who is drugged and misses his coronation ceremony.

    The film went into production under the title Kingdom of the Sun in 1995 with Allers taking complete control. The story revolved around a greedy emperor who swaps his life with that of a peasant who looks exactly like him in the same vein as Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. It was all going well until Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame failed to achieve the same box office success as The Lion King, so it was decided to tone the project down. The story was altered, all but one of the songs were dropped, and 25% of the already-rendered animation was shelved.

  • 'Kingdom of the Sun's' First Screening Was A Disaster

    The production team under Roger Allers spent three years working on Kingdom of the Sun before there was an opportunity to screen it. Granted, an animation screening at that stage of development includes stills, storyboards, and unfinished animation. That said, you can still catch on to the plot and the characters well enough to determine whether or not the movie is coming together, and in the case of Kingdom of the Sun, it wasn't happening.

    Thomas Schumacher, the President of Walt Disney Feature Animation, absolutely laid into the team during a rather disastrous screening. "For me, so much of the movie isn't working. I don't know who I'm supposed to care about, what I'm watching. The pace seems really wacky. It's so leaden. I'm not having much fun." It was clear that the film wasn't working, which led to the overhaul of the plot, characters, and soundtrack.

  • Production Issues Were So Bad, There’s A Documentary About It

    The production of The Emperor's New Groove was much more chaotic than other Disney projects. This was primarily due to a complete overhaul of the plot following weak performances of two animated Disney films. It was decided that the plans for Kingdom of the Sun were too ambitious and not funny enough to draw in audiences. This created numerous problems because the film had already started production - costly production.

    About $25 to $30 million was already spent on animation, design development, which included trips to Peru and a ton of music that ultimately had to be stripped from the final product. During production, Trudie Styler documented "the production process" via a documentary called The Sweatbox that was released in 2002. Initially, the plan was to document the animation processes and the like, but in the end, it showed how painfully flawed the production was for pretty much everyone involved. The full, unedited version of the documentary can be found here.

  • All Of The Production Issues Ultimately Gave The Team Only Two Years To Complete The Movie

    One of the production team's most significant problems regarding The Emperor's New Groove was that it had a deadline. Work may have begun in 1994, but it had a set release date in 2000, and the production issues caused all kinds of problems. The team had to dump three years of work and start over... and they only had two years to do it in! Two years may sound like a long time, but when you're talking about traditional cel animation, that amounts to an astounding amount of labor. The average amount of time needed for a 90-minute animated feature is four to seven years.

    The team had that much time in the beginning, but when a lousy screening resulted in a complete remake of the concept and characters, the animators had to move into high gear. With only two years to work, the animators didn't waste any time. If a joke didn't land, the sequence was thrown out quickly. Mark Dindal was brought on to direct, and he described the process as being "the fastest movie I've ever worked on." He also said it "was the most like live television that feature animation could ever be."

    There wasn’t a lot of time to do redos and because of that there’s a real freshness to it. Often what would happen on other movies is people would suggest something that was just too silly for the movie or just out of left field. But this was the only movie where someone would make a suggestion and we’d go, ‘Oh, let’s use that....This was the one movie where that idea worked in terms of the tone. That was fun because you’d spend hours working out the mechanics of getting her back onto the tower. But that doesn’t really matter. You just need her back up on the tower. This movie allows you to come up with a nonsensical, silly, absurd thing that lets you get back to the story. There was incredible energy in the story room.

  • Nearly Every Song Was Cut From The Film After Production Changes

    While The Emperor's New Groove's final cut didn't include many musical numbers, it did have them written and performed long before the movie was released. When the plot was changed to suit a more comedic tone, eight songs written and performed by Sting had to be cut. They were inextricably tied to the events of Kingdom of the Sun, so there was no way to keep them in and have them make any sense to the plot.

    Sting was personally brought onto the project by Roger Allers (who eventually left the project) with the hope of capitalizing on the same level of success found in having Sir Elton John write and perform the music in The Lion King. If you look at the film's soundtrack, Sting's name only appears twice via "My Funny Friend and Me" and "One Day She'll Love Me." The majority of the rest of the album consists of musical scores.

    As it happens, the only reason The Sweatbox exists to shine a light on the chaotic production of the movie is Sting. One of his conditions upon taking the gig was to have his wife, Trudie Styler, document the process. JustPressPlay explained that "The Sweatbox, which has been almost entirely buried and forgotten by Disney... follows the production of the film from phase 1 as part of the deal made with Sting to write the film's soundtrack (a soundtrack which was left almost entirely on the cutting room floor save for the song which cuts awkwardly in at the start of the credits)."

    Sting spoke to the Associated Press in December of 2000, explaining what happened with his songs. "At first, I was angry and perturbed. Then I wanted some vengeance. We couldn't use the songs in this new film because the characters they were written for didn't exist anymore. I'm not a particularly easy person to call and say, 'We're not using your songs', and I didn't make them feel any easier about it. After about five minutes of ranting and raving, I thought, 'OK, let's get back to work. Let's try to make this thing happen. It's been a very long road, but I'm happy we got this far. I didn't think we would at one point."

  • The Final Script Wasn’t Submitted To Disney Until Two Weeks After The Movie Was In Theaters

    You'd think that a studio like Disney would need or have the final script of a film before production concludes, but that's not how things went down with The Emperor's New Groove. Granted, the studio wanted one for its archives, but there wasn't an actual script put together at any time during production, which is certainly a different way of doing things. In an interview with Vulture, David Reynolds, the movie's screenwriter, explained what happened when the studio sent someone to pick up a copy.

    About two weeks after the movie was released, a studio worker knocked on Reynolds' door and said, "I'm from the archives. I just need the final script for Emperor's New Groove. They didn't send one down," Reynolds then informed him that there was no script, "We never wrote a script. We just made the movie." 

    After some back-and-forth over the nature of whatever Reynolds had that he didn't consider a script, the guy left with "Three or four legal boxes." He went on to explain that "They had a couple [of] interns just take all the pages and put them into a document, and then they wrote interstitials, and they slapped my name on it. This is the honest-to-God truth: The first and only draft of The Emperor's New Groove was handed in two weeks after the movie was in theaters."