Prequelitis is a disease that affects many films that are made after but set before a well known and loved film. Monsters University shows signs of this condition, and below is the diagnosis of how badly it is suffering. NB: This condition can be deadly to a film’s artistic success when suffering too much from all of the following symptoms at once:
1. Lack Of Invention – When a film relies on a world that has already been established instead of creating something new. C.f. The recycled score and plot structure in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Monsters University is an inventive film in many ways. Like the best Pixar films, it has a vast array of visual jokes that you’ll only be spotting on the second or third time you watch it. The Monsters universe is one of the studio’s best for doing this, too, as the totally alien world allows for hilarious inversions of more familiar sights on earth. So in University there is, as with all college films, a societies fair where new students can sign up to the debate team, art society etc. Only in Pixar’s monstrous version of this staple event, the debate team is a two headed creature that argues with itself and the art soc use their own heads instead of paintbrushes. Ignoring the pertinent question of why a film aimed at children is sending up a genre that will go over all of their heads, this film succeeds at inverting classic college tropes and making them fresh and funny once more.
Yet for all of this – plus some clever character design – University is hampered by its lack of originality; many of the positives of the film are simply riding on the coat tails of its predecessor. Monsters University is only funny because Monsters Inc. was. There’s a lot to laugh at throughout the film, but it’s all tinged with the memory that a world this creative and exciting to explore used to be an original idea for Pixar, not a prequel
2. Predetermined Conclusion – when the outcome of the prequel is already determined by our knowledge of the original, like a more boring version of dramatic irony. C.f. Anakin becoming Darth Vader
The most curious and unique aspect of Monsters University is the overall message of the film, and in order to try and pick apart what that is, I’ll have to discuss the film’s plot in some depth, so feel free to ignore this section if you haven’t seen it yet. Right at the start of the film the audience is introduced to school aged Mike on a trip to the big factory where scares create energy and dreams are made. His eye widens as he witnesses scarers at work and meets one of the best. In many ways this is the most touching scene in the film, as the young monster struggles to make friends with his peers and is told he’ll never be a scarer. Yet anyone who has seen Inc. knows that Mike doesn’t become one at all – he becomes the assistant.
Once at University and on the scaring courses, Mike becomes more determined than ever, but the naysaying voices get louder, too. Dean Hardscrabble tells the class that a monster who isn’t scary isn’t a monster at all. Sully tells Mike he just doesn’t have it. The frat house jox tell him he doesn’t belong. Mike reads all the books and wants it more than anyone else on the course. He puts in the time and he really cares about it. The fact is, he isn’t scary, and we know from Monsters Inc. that he won’t become everything he wants to be – in short, all those voices telling him he won’t amount to anything are proven right by this film. So the entire drive of the plot – Mike entering the scare games to prove he has what it takes – is undermined by our knowledge of what lies in store for him. The result of the predetermined conclusion to Mike’s story is a dramatic arc that feels curiously muted. As Mike is propelled inexorably towards his life of admin and as we witness him giving up on his dreams, Monsters University becomes Pixar’s most morose film yet.
The message is this: get more realistic dreams. Aspiring film makers, you’ll never finish your screenplay so accept your Starbucks-bound future; writers, you are not James Joyce and you aren’t even Dan Brown, so give up the dream of getting published or paid and settle down as an accountant; kids who want to be astronauts, your chances are astronomically slim. Whilst this may be the most realistic moral message in a kids film ever, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
3. Outcome Necessity – When a prequel feels the need to reach the specific outcome of the earlier film’s set up, often rushing the finale in the process. C.f. The ‘now they hate each other’ conclusion of X-Men first class, the virus credits in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Loads of people know and love Monsters Inc. and they all know that in that film, Mike and Sully both work on the scare floor. The film makers of Monsters University felt it necessary to make sure that University linked up entirely with Inc. by having a rushed series of photos right at the end that show us how they got there. It skips out a massive chunk of their story in under a minute. This is entirely unnecessary as the audience can deduce as much if they have half a brain. Stories don’t always need loose ends tied up, especially prequels, and I, for one, would have much preferred a film set in the mail room of Monsters Inc. than the one we did get. The desire to reach the familiar set up of Inc. comes at the cost of an interesting story.
4. Inevitable If Unfair Comparison – When, however good a film is, it will always be compared unfavourably to its predecessors. C.f. Every prequel ever.
It’s just not as good as Monsters, Inc., is it?
Diagnosis: Survivable. This is only a medium strength case of Prequelitis, thankfully the disease hasn’t spread too far. It survives on the strength of its precursor, but the film’s primary carers Pixar need to be more careful in future.
Monster’s University is better than any other big studio animation that has so far been released in 2013. That it is merely decent and not amazing goes some way to showing how disappointing this year has been so far, especially given some of the strong films released in 2012. It’s an amiable, unremarkable comedy from a studio that, in the past, have left audiences with jaws dropped and tears in their eyes. Nothing here is likely to do that and although it is unfair to judge a film on something it isn’t, Monsters University frequently feels like it could have been so much more.
Over the course of Edinburgh Film Festival I had the privilege of interviewing Scott Clark, the supervising animator for Monster’s University. Clark is a Pixar veteran, having worked with the beloved studio since A Bug’s Life. I used the opportunity to ask him quite geeky questions about the process of animation, but also about Monsters U as a whole. There’s nothing spoilery in here, but it does give away two cameos and discusses a scene in the final act. If you want to save that kind of thing until after you’ve seen it, I’ve highlighted the sections so you can skip past them.
What does a supervising animator do?
So my job is to support my crew of about 60 or 70 animators, helping them to get the performance we need for the director, and also helping the director. If I do my job right I’m giving them work that inspires them to give good performances as animators and actors and I’m giving the director support by offering my opinion on his responsibilities. I deal with the performances.
How early in the process do you get involved with a film?
Pretty early. The film takes about five years from concept to it being in theatres. My part of it is about three years. Once they have worked the premise into a pretty workable story, I go into pre-production and we start building models for characters we think are likely to stick around.
Are you involved with character design and storyboarding?
You actually just named two different departments. Storyboarding is the story department and they draw panels that tell the story. The designing of the characters is the art department, those are illustrators who decide what the characters look like. Animation is the team that brings these characters to life. We’re like the actors. But all of these departments are different art forms. Sometimes there is crossover where we influence each other.
Who is in charge of coming up with great visual jokes in the background – is that the screenwriters?
That’s the story artists or something in the script, but I have been in some gag sessions where I’m asked to pitch in if it is a very animated gag, where the humour comes from the performances. That’s definitely ours. Like Art flipping down the steps like a slinky, or introducing himself like a noodle, that’s all animation.
NEXT SECTION GIVES AWAY CAMEOS.
Which is your favourite joke?
You know, it’s not really an animated joke much, but I love the cameo by Roz.
I like the abominable snowman one, too…
John Ratzenberger… he always has to be in it!
But if they met the abominable snowman in the mail room, I thought in Monsters Inc. they hadn’t met him…
They weren’t in the mail room for very long.
And they were young…
They didn’t get a chance to know him. And I think he probably got banished from there pretty quickly.
BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER BITS NOW!!!
Pixar are famous for unusual approaches for building team spirit and getting into the zone of the film. On Brave they reportedly had sword fighting lessons.
And they wore kilts every Friday.
What was the Monsters University quirks?
We actually invented some Scare Games where we divided the whole animation department into different fraternities and sororities – and a guy or a girl could be in a fraternity or a sorority – and we had contests. At our animation wrap party we had the championships.
Did you win?
We didn’t win, but the frat that I was in did do pretty well, yeah.
Getting a bit technical, now. There’s a book called The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I’d like to look at two of the principles that I believe are carried into most animation, and see how they apply to Monsters University.
The first one is Squash and Stretch, the idea that physics should apply to characters and that flesh should move in a physically believable way. With the monsters films you have totally alien properties – with the old animal films they were based on footage of animals moving. What does squash and stretch look like when animating monsters – they could have totally different physical reactions to things, like Art or a slug monster or something.
Well everything is based on something we are familiar with. So Sullivan is human, but he is also a bear, he’s also an ape, with simian arms. The hair is like a dog or a bear. So we are always looking at things that we recognise from life. I’ll take squash and stretch even further to what John Lasseter calls ‘truth to material’ and it’s very important in computer animation that you accept what the character is made out of. So in Cars we try not to bend and squash and stretch the metal too much. You have to with the mouth, but you don’t see it bending that much or being cartoony.
Whereas someone more cartoonish like Squishy, the character from Monsters University – he’s the grey kid with the green sweater and many eyes – he’s very squishy, literally, so we could really be very pliable with a character like that. With Art we got to animate him like a noodle.
Do you think with the Monsters world you had more opportunity to be creative with squash and stretch?
Well yeah. With Brave, last year’s Pixar film, that had more naturalistic physics. It’s still caricature, but it’s humans, bears and horses. So it’s stuff that we see in real life and are familiar with. In the Monsters world we get to push it a little further and we get to go ‘well what about this guy with five eyes’ or ‘this monster is just a noodley U-shape.’ I do think we get to be a little cartoonier.
What was your reference point for Mike?
Well Mike is definitely very human, only with one eye. With Billy Crystal’s performance in the first movie, he was the sidekick. This one, being the main character, he had to emote more. We had to feel really sad for him when he discovers he’s not really that good at being a scary monster, you know? So we are looking at ourselves, you know, the things we deal with as people and the struggles we have. I mean, I think who hasn’t gone to school and majored in one thing but come out the other side as someone else? Very few kids are going to do exactly what they dream of. It could be something incredibly different that might be wonderful, but not exactly what you thought.
That leads on nicely to the second aspect of character animation I want to talk about, which is ‘Appeal.’ The idea that an animated character has to elicit emotions – even the villains. There’s a quote from the book that says ‘the whole idea that you can communicate feelings with lines seems ridiculous at times.’ Monsters U is very emotional at times, like when young Mike first visits the scare floor. It connects with people. Is it uniquely challenging, because you are creating creatures we are supposed to be quite scared of, to create appeal in these characters? How do you go about that with Monsters as opposed to say, Toy Story or A Bug’s Life?
Right, well appeal is a word that seems simple but is quite complex. It’s like an Al Hirschfield caricature that is just a few lines, but is so exquisite and simple that it really looks more like the person than the person. That’s what we are trying to get out of our characters. It should go to the core of emotion. It’s tough. There are a lot of other designs along the way that look ugly and unappealing. We always try and figure out how is this an appealing design, or an appealing performance? Are people drawn to this story? Is there heart warmed by it?
I would hope that we are able to make you cry one moment, then laugh in relief, then really laugh at something really funny. I think that contrast gives it greater depth.
NEXT QUESTION DISCUSSES THE FINAL ACT
I think the standout moment for that is when they are in the human world. That, for me, had the biggest laugh of the film when they recreate a horror film in order to scare the adults. That followed just on from the big moment of self-realisation in the film.
There’s an appeal to the adult watching that, knowing that we are parodying a certain genre of film that kids are enjoying it at a dramatic level. But what kid, also, doesn’t want to see adults scared by big monsters?
Looking at a more studio wide perspective. Dreamworks and Disney are upping their game in terms of invention, creativity and critical reception. Is there pressure to compete with the other CG big guns out there?
There are a lot of CG animated films out there, but there’s a lot more live action films. If you look at the total of films made, we’re just a small percentage. I think there is room for more. If they are good. I love animated films, but I also don’t like seeing bad movies. I just want all the studios to make good movies and if there are more animated films that are good, I’m happy.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know, I’m in between.
That’s quite exciting, not knowing what Pixar have in store for you next.
All I know is that it will be fun. I’ve been working for Pixar seventeen years in July, and I’m looking forward to whatever it is. I have some ideas of what it might be. We’ll see.
A personal question for my blog here. I’m covering all fifty two of Disney’s animated films over the year. I’m in the ’80s at the moment.
Oh wow. The eighties.
Yeah… Do you have a favourite Disney animation?
Of the classic films, I want to say 101 Dalmatians. Or The Jungle Book. Oh gosh… The Jungle Book. I’ll go with The Jungle Book. Otherwise I’d have to say Dumbo. It’s both short and simple, and they really had to make it fast, but there is some perfect storytelling going on in that movie. It’s appealing.
Finally, what did the monster that lived in your closet as a child look like?
It was probably a boogey man or an alligator that waited under my bed that would eat me if I fell down there. It wasn’t as funny as the monsters in our movie.
So it didn’t make it into the film, then?
No. Well, the essence of it did. There’s something appealing about the idea that it is these monsters’ job. They punch their time card, they have names like ‘James P. Sullivan,’ and they’re very formal, but they are kinda goofy and their job is to scare the bejeezus out of children. I think every kid has to deal with that.