'Monsters University' Takes The Prequel Challenge

Jun 6, 2013
Ever since “Monsters, Inc.” opened in theaters on Nov. 2, 2001, the team at Pixar Animation Studios knew that Mike, Sulley and the monster world had touched audiences worldwide in a significant way. So the idea of bringing them back to the big screen in “Monsters University” was a welcome one. How to do it, exactly, was another story—literally.
Says executive producer John Lasseter, “When we create an original film at Pixar, by the time we’re done with it, we know the characters—they’re like friends; they’re like family; they’re part of us. It’s always bittersweet to say goodbye to characters like that. It’s so much fun to start thinking of new ideas that you can do in a world you already love, but we had to come up with a story that is as good or better than the original.”
To fuel Pixar Animation Studios’ well known collaborative process, the creative leadership team, dubbed “the brain trust,” hosted a brainstorming session, inviting some of Pixar’s best storytellers, including several members of the original “Monsters, Inc.” team. The idea of doing a prequel was certainly appealing to this group. Imagining the backstory for Mike and Sulley—a natural part of the filmmaking process—had been happening since the original film was made.
But filmmakers were well aware of the challenges surrounding prequels. Says co-screenwriter Robert L. Baird, “When the idea came up, we said, ‘Okay, let’s go back through movie history and study all the great prequels.’ Then we realized we couldn’t think of any.”
Explains director Dan Scanlon, “One of the challenges with a prequel is that by definition, everyone knows how the story ends. So it can be difficult to uncover the drama because we already know everything’s going to work out. It’s hard to define those stakes. You have to learn something new about the characters—which we ultimately do in ‘MU.’ We had to push the drama far enough that it almost threatened the way people felt about these characters, while ensuring that when the movie ends, we actually do the opposite by bringing the audience even closer to Mike and Sulley.”
Adds producer Kori Rae. “It can be insanely difficult to make a prequel that isn’t predictable—to create a story with unexpected twists and turns and surprising character arcs. But the storytellers really dug deep and developed details about these characters to make a fun, yet emotional plot that audiences will never see coming.”
According to story supervisor Kelsey Mann, knowing how the story ends actually presented filmmakers with some exciting opportunities. “You may know where they’re going to end up,” says Mann, “but you don’t know how they got there. So it’s the journey that really matters, an idea that ultimately underscores the whole movie.”
Scanlon agrees. “The whole filmmaking process mirrors the path our characters take in this movie. It’s not a straight line from beginning to end—but one filled with dips and peaks, left turns and a lot of rerouting. But—like Mike’s story—it all works out exactly like it should.”
The director tips his hat to his Pixar team. “The collaborative environment here is unique and extremely valuable. I get feedback from some of the most talented people in the industry. I’m not expected to incorporate all of it—or any of it—but I’m better because of it. And so is the film. You better believe I relate to Mike and Sulley’s story.”
Their journey isn’t easy, to be sure, but according to Scanlon—it’s an adventure. “It’s a college movie, a coming-of-age story, so we wanted it to be really fun and capture that experience of self-discovery. We’re definitely going for laughs, but also an emotional story that’s relatable. The most important thing for us is to tell a story that makes people feel good. Maybe someone’s just had some failure in life or feels like a big dream has fallen apart. That person might walk out of the theater feeling that there’s hope—that it happens to everyone. Their dream might have to change course, but it’s not the end of the world.”
Opening across the Philippines on June 26 in Disney Digital 3D, 2D and regular theaters, “Monsters University” is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International through Columbia Pictures.

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