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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Lessons on Failure: Kingdom of the Sun

Before Disney's Emperor's New Groove existed, there was a previous movie titled Kingdom of the Sun with a fleshed out story line . . . that got canned. Manco was the emperor. Pacha was eighteen. There were two other female characters and yes, someone still got turned into a llama, but it was a completely different film. You may have seen my social media post about it a few weeks ago, and you'd think that would have been enough for me, but around that time period I unintentionally went down a bizarre rabbit hole--Disney's and Pixar's failures.

It started with me looking up stuff about Lion King (my fave 😍), with the remake (not my fave). The remake took a direction I strongly disagree with--they didn't make their characters emote (fancy term for showing emotions in body language and facial expressions). This is one of the most basics rules of visual storytelling, particularly with comics and animation. Scott McCloud does a great job explaining this in his (comic)book, Understanding Comics (worth reading if you are in the storytelling industry even if you don't write or really read comics, like me). To me, this was a bad decision, for storytelling. Which led me to wonder about the other bad decisions Disney has made.

I was taking a staycation during this time and started learning about their poor choices when relaxing (I'm weird). In fact, there is a whole Youtube channel called Defunctland that specializes in failed (or stolen) theme park ideas. I also took the time to finally study up on the whole "Lion King is stolen from Kimba" controversy (spoiler: the art concepts are totally stolen. WAY too many similarities to be coincidental). To be honest, I haven't kept up with Disney over the last several years, but this journey I took was fascinating.

You see, as consumers, we mostly just see Disney's successes in their finished projects. Even their poor movies are still pretty decent. We almost never see the major failures, the sweat, the tears, the arguments. But I was learning all about these things, and Disney has had a lot of them.

One of the most fascinating was Kingdom of the Sun. There is a whole documentary on creating it, which Disney has banned, but you can still watch it on Youtube if you search "The Sweatbox." It's an hour and half, but since I was on staycation, I watched all of it.

Part 1: Kingdom of the Sun

Like I mentioned in my Facebook post, Kingdom of the Sun was meant to be a musical movie in the same vein as Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and pretty much all the other Disney Renaissance movies, but set in South America. The entire story was written out, storyboarded, cast, even actors had recorded their lines. All musical numbers had been written (there were six), and 20% of the animation was completed.

The original story starred Pacha (who looked like Kuzco), voiced by Owen Wilson, who meets Emperor Manco and switches places with him (think The Prince and the Pauper, loosely) while an evil sorceress, Yzma, plans to block out the sun forever with her minions (a talking talisman and three mummies). It included a romantic line, where Pacha fell in love with Manco’s fiancé (Nina) while he was in disguise, and Yzma does turn Manco into a llama, and he works with a female llama herder, Mata, to get home. It was based on Inca culture and magic. And Yzma summons Supai (the Incan god of death) to engulf the kingdom. At the climax, Pacha and Manco work together to stop her, Pacha ultimately saving the kingdom by lassoing the sun (which was apparently supposed to have consequences, or rather, give an explanation on how the sun functions in today's society).

Oh yeah, and also, the movie opened with an Incan inspired creation story with the gods (probably similar to Hercules).

The creators literally spent years working on this thing (I thought they said three in the documentary, but now I'm questioning if I heard right). In the documentary, you can hear and see how excited they all are and how hard they are working. One character designer talks about how he wanted to animate for Disney most his life and even immigrated to America to have that chance; he is thrilled to work on a female villain for the first time. Others rejoice over actors saying lines in just the right way. Sting sweats over creating six songs that encapsulate the story and embody his own standards of quality. People are traveling to Peru and doing research. Others are going through Disney's animation vaults to get inspiration. Everyone is putting in their blood, sweat, and tears.

And then Disney canned it.

Which must have really sucked. Bad.

One of the Disney critics said the pacing was weird and off. They couldn't quite tell if the movie was trying to be a drama, or a comedy, or a romance, or an epic story . . . and there was a lot going on. I'm not sure exactly the ultimate reason it got canned, but . . . it did.

Needless to say, the creators were heartbroken.

We've probably all been there. 

I mean, maybe we've never worked on a movie for Disney that got trashed, but I think we've probably all had similar moments. I know I've thrown out whole scenes I've spent weeks on. Heck, I've also thrown out a whole novel manuscript and started over. A lot of us have whole books that have never been published. You see, in our creative journeys, we all have our "Dark Night of the Soul" scenes; we all have our "All is Lost" moments.

And maybe like Kingdom of the Sun, it even is "all lost."

But never forget, it is the successes that are usually remembered, far more often than the failures. And in fact, the successes almost always matter more than the failures.

Because you always do more good in the world by sharing your talents.

And none of us can succeed without failing.

That's just the way this life works.

So what did the studio do after Kingdom of the Sun got canned? Well, a whole new story.

Part 2: The Emperor's New Groove

After their massive failure, a lot of the creators were in pain. They essentially had to throw away the entire thing. The director even got kicked off. He talked about how much it hurt, like losing his baby. He'd put his whole heart and passion into it.

But Disney still had to put out a movie. So the entire story was stripped down. Way down. In fact, I don't know that you can even call it stripping because so much of it was different and totally new. At one point, there were actually six different scripts being worked on--SIX. (And one even took place in Jamaica). Almost all the characters got thrown out, and all the original music was thrown out

In the documentary, Sting voices how disappointed he is that his songs for an epic musical were trashed, and how he now has to come back, years later, to write a new song that's a totally different tone. Those behind Yzma's character grieved over how she went from an evil sorceress summoning the god of death to destroy the kingdom and sun, to a woman who simply wants to become emperor.

And guess what? Other than being sad about letting things go, those behind the creative process still found this movie very difficult. As I was watching this documentary, I couldn't help but be somewhat baffled that all these Disney professionals are struggling with some of the same things I struggle with. Storytelling is STILL hard, even for the professionals. They're trying to get the pacing just right. They are trying to get the lines just right. Every beat counts. The timing needs to be perfect for the humor. Does Pacha need a family? Does he not need a family? He needs a family to drive home the theme at the end, but the family is boring. It's Kuzco's birthday. It's not  Kuzco's birthday--that takes too much explaining. The real story is about Pacha and Kuzco. The ending this way is undermining the theme. Can we make the opening great with such an unlikeable person as the main character? Disney's story critics worried they wouldn't be able to maintain such extreme comedy for a whole film. Every line, every frame, every character design needed to be exact.

It seemed they were trying and failing a hundred different ways.

But somewhat surprisingly, some creators remarked, that's just how the process goes. You try and fail and try and fail and shape and fail and fix and fail.

It reminded me of something I've said before: Your story is broken from conception to publication, and sometimes, even then its still broken.

So why do we get so frustrated about it? Isn't that just the process?

Anyway they built up a completely different story (Hey, and we even got Kronk out of it!). And we got an entirely different tone. Everything seemed to be finally coming together. . . .

Until the music score. 🤦‍♀️

They hired someone talented to do that. But when they did the screen testing itself, it was terrible. It wasn't that the music was bad. Or that the show was bad. It was that they were bad, together. The music emphasized the animation too much, to the point that the jokes weren't funny, because the music over delivered them.

So again they started over (but just on the music this time), hiring someone completely new.  (You'll notice that the music score for Emperor's New Groove is rather mellow--that's because the film literally couldn't handle something more dramatic and still remain effective.)

As a writer, I have to say I've had similar experiences. I might have two great ideas, but they don't work together. Sometimes, it's just too much, and I need to make one aspect less dramatic. It kind of sucks, but it happens.

Once the score was handled, at long last the film was completed.

And you know what?

The Emperor's New Groove was a success! I've never met someone who's watched that movie and hated it! Hands down it's in my top ten Disney movies.

But look how much they failed in the process. They threw out an entire movie script (and several others). And they scrapped about a million and a half things! But they kept going.

Success isn't about getting it right the first time. It's about getting it right, period.

And even the best of us have to trash our material from time to time.

Creating anything truly worthwhile is hard and it sucks sometimes. But perseverance matters more than raw talent. And even if you have to throw something away, it doesn't mean it was a complete waste. Pull out the llama, or rework the plot, completely change the tone, put in your shoulder angel (or devil). If they can do it, so can you.

Maybe Kingdom of the Sun could have been great. Or maybe they were right in shutting it down. We'll never know.

But someone, somewhere is going to create something great—why not you?


If you are interested in learning more about Kingdom of the Sun, you can watch the documentary here.

The Emperor's New Groove album actually has some the Kingdom of the Sun songs on it, despite them getting scrapped from the film. (Have you ever noticed how the ending credits sound like something that could have come from The Lion King?) They even kept the original recording of Yzma singing about her evil plans.

The songs are: "Snuff out the Light," "One Day She'll Love Me," "My Funny Friend and Me," and "Walk the Llama Llama"

If you want to get an idea of what "Snuff out the Light" would have looked like, watch part of this video (I think it looks cool with the Incan style shots):

Interestingly, Emperor's New Groove marked the end of the Disney Renaissance--a time period when Disney made animated films that followed the same structure as musicals, with wide sweeping shots of huge settings, epic story lines, and dramatic crescendos. Eventually they would go back to that approach with Tangled and Frozen, and again prove it to be highly successful.


I realize this is a different sort of post than what I usually do and probably a little rambly, but I really wanted to share. Hopefully you found it as fascinating as I did. I may or may not share some of Disney's other interesting failures in future posts.

Also, this week I will be a panelist at FanX. If you are going, feel free to say hi!

Here are my panels:

 20 Years of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Friday September 6, 2019 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm

By Grabthar's Hammer, What A Panel: GALAXY QUEST 20 Years Later
Saturday September 7, 2019 10:00 am to 11:00 am 

Why We Love Neville Longbottom
Saturday September 7, 2019 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm

I'm also helping out with a little panel in the kids section at twelve on Friday.


  1. This makes me feel bad about the THOUSANDS of words I've cut from various manuscripts. Some were cut because they were awful, but some of my best writing had to go because it took me off track. The good stuff is saved somewhere. Who knows... maybe I'll go back to those chapters or characters one day and create a whole new project. If Disney can do it, why can't I? Thanks for the inspiration :) xoxo

    1. Yeah, I'm still sad about some things I've cut. But it's part of the process I guess!

  2. Above comment by Julie Mayerson Brown - not sure why I'm showing up as "Unknown."

  3. Well timed post, I've been struggling to admit I need to cut a lot of text from my WIP. This gives me some confidence I am making the right decision to make the WIP better, eventually with enough cuts, the best I can make it. Thanks!

    1. Glad it was helpful! It's so hard to make the cuts sometimes :/


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