Wow, talk about a Revision from Hell

A post from Writer Unboxed: The Sweatbox: Losing the Magic of Writing

This post is not at all what I thought it would be! It’s not a bit about losing flow or losing focus or anything of the kind. It’s about revision. Specifically, the revision of the Disney movie “The Emperor’s New Groove” from start to finish.

I haven’t seen it. Nothing about the promos appealed to me. But wow, is this a story about revision!

Named after what the original Walt Disney crew called their screening room—at the time, a wooden shack with no air conditioning—this documentary depicted the wild ride that was the production of The Kingdom of the Sun, which would eventually turn into The Emperor’s New Groove. Why Disney apparently banned the documentary from further distribution, however, was less due to it being about an unfinished movie and more about the grueling process of writing itself–particularly, how often the final project becomes something nearly unrecognizable from its bright-eyed beginnings. The sweatbox, in so many words, is the unhappiest place on earth.

You would not BELIEVE the revision this movie went through.

The Prince and the Pauper plot, the blotting out the sun plot, both love interest plots, and the mystical origins plot were all cut. What remained was a simpler premise: A spoiled young man learns humility after being transformed into a llama.

Virtually all secondary characters were either combined or removed

Due to the immense changes in plot, Sting’s entire slew of eight (originally accepted) songs were scrapped. Previously thinking he had just a few days left on the project before the first sweatbox, he now had to start over. Due to his own time constraints, he could only produce two new songs.

But that’s not all!

In a surprising turn of events, the Disney heads approved of the film overall, but Sting did not. In an approach that seemed both passionate and uncharacteristically shy, Sting wrote a letter to the team, saying he was greatly disappointed in the ending and felt it negated the story’s core values and purpose. The team, including the Disney heads themselves, decided that Sting was right and called a meeting. With the clock ticking dangerously close to deadline, they changed the ending.

Not only did aspects of the movie’s tone still need to shift, but the entire instrumental score needed to be redone. The composer was ultimately (though respectfully) released, causing a scurry from the team to find a new composer to start from scratch before their deadline mere months away.

Wow. I mean, wow.

Take home message from the linked post: Everybody, even Disney has to do a lot of messy revision. It’s fine if you have to do this too.

Well, I don’t know. That sounds remarkably, extraordinarily messy to me. I say that as someone who’s done plenty of revision, twice. I mean, minor revision all the time, moderate revision some of the time, and a hell of a lot of revision twice. But the above sounds like it goes way out beyond revision to writing a different story entirely, even if the final product kept one item (young man gets turned into llama) from the original.

I don’t think everyone does THAT much revision all the time, or in fact very often at all.

Of course the most massive revision I’ve ever done was to turn the Unpublishable First Trilogy into (a) Winter of Ice and Iron, and (B) The White Road of the Moon. Wow, that was a ton of work.

But even there I didn’t throw away 90% of the plot and all the secondary characters! No way! I split the important characters between the two books, but I saved most of them. Only a handful got cut entirely. Mind you, they were very cool characters. Maybe someday I’ll write something where I can use those characters.

Then one book got the basic original plot and the other got a basically new plot.

But no matter how dramatic all this was, that’s still different from, what, keeping the element “girl can see ghosts” and scrapping literally everything else. THAT is the kind of thing that happened to that Disney movie!

Anyway, wow, I’m blown away that Disney actually persisted through all that and came out with a finished movie.

But I’m still not particularly inclined to rush out and watch it. Unless any of you give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. How about it? Have any of you watched this?

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8 thoughts on “Wow, talk about a Revision from Hell”

  1. Actually, yes, I have seen it. Before the Teen was a teen she’d seen it somewhere and talked about it… and eventually wanted to watch it again. It’s like the Disney rustler movie, it shouldn’t work, and it seems more like a product of Looney Tunes than Disney. They don’t even hide that it doesn’t make sense – there’s a scene of characters wondering how we got here when x was y, and one pulls down a map showing the route, shrugs and just goes with it. It shouldn’t work at all, but it was weirdly enjoyable.

    … afterthought..
    I think part of what makes it is the sheer niceness and kindness of some of the characters, including the henchman.

  2. This is a major nostalgia movie for me. We bought it when my kids were in early elementary and both my husband and I were working and trying desperately to keep on top of everything young parents scramble after. On Mondays, I would pick up the boys from daycare, we’d get home, I’d make Kraft Mac and cheese and throw some chicken nuggets or fish sticks in the oven, and we would watch this while we ate. It was one of those routines that we probably only did a few months but it feels like it was the pattern of years.

    The boys and I will put this movie on again every once in awhile when they are visiting . And I still enjoy it. It’s a buddy/bromance. The main characters are fun, especially the emperor (Kusko) who is delightfully obnoxious. But our favorite characters are the villain (Isme? ?spelling) and her sidekick Kronk. They make the movie, front to back. Maybe not Disney’s greatest, but I’d watch this any day over The Little Mermaid.

  3. The behind the scenes stuff for frozen was pretty interesting too – the original plotline, of the princesses fighting over a man, sounded dire. Maybe that’s how their process works?

  4. It’s fun, give it a try.

    I just read part of Mary’s comment to the Teen who remarked, “I liked the Little Mermaid, but I remember the llama movie.” I managed to not ever watch TLM all the way through so will not opine.

  5. The villains are Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton–honestly the best parts of the movie. My kids loved it. I thought it was amusing fluff.

  6. The big difference is that even when we collaborate, we don’t revise by committee. (Though the thought of doing major revisions with even one other author makes my head ache.)

    I have, once or twice, pitched out a story and started over from scratch, but I didn’t have to argue the points.

  7. Mary Catelli, you’re right, that’s the important difference. I just took a second to try to imagine what revising via committee would be like, flinched, and gave up the attempt. Very much not something I would want to do! Considering editorial input is as close to that as I ever want to come!

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