Monsters University: Back to school with Pixar

Sully and Mike are back in the long-awaited follow-up to Monsters Inc. Its director reassures Alistair Harkness that it is a story worth telling

Monsters University receives its first Scottish screening at Edinburgh Film Festival. Picture: Pixar

When Monsters, Inc. was released in American cinemas in November 2001, the creative team behind Pixar’s fourth feature noticed something interesting was happening. The audience turning out to see the film didn’t just consist of kids and their parents: around 40 per cent of tickets being sold were to teenagers, college students and adults, with cinemas adding midnight screenings to accommodate demand. It was a significant moment. Computer animation had effectively come of age. It was medium for everyone to enjoy.

Fast-forward 12 years and nine more films (among them Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up and Brave) and the same holds true. Almost. With the imminent release of Monsters University, a belated prequel to Monsters, Inc., the studio is now in the potentially curious position of having made a film that has to work for an even more specialised audience: the older teens and twentysomethings for whom that early Pixar classic might have served as their first experience of the movies.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“You know, it’s funny, we didn’t really think about the fact that the kids who loved Monsters, Inc. would be in college now until much later,” says Monsters University director Dan Scanlon of the film, which receives its first Scottish screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival next weekend. “The first thing we do at Pixar is make movies for ourselves – and that’s really the only thing we do because once you start second-guessing people, then it becomes dangerous.”

Though a follow-up to Monsters Inc.,has long been mooted, the idea only really began gaining traction five years ago after the studio ditched plans for a sequel and started focusing on the idea of turning back the clock on its most beloved characters.

Homing in once again on top monster scarer James P “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) and his nervy, one-eyed scare assistant Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), the new film explores the origins of their friendship when their differing attitudes to academia create an acrimonious rivalry.

Where Monsters, Inc. was more about Sully’s professional crisis of confidence, this one is all about Mike and his realisation that he might not have what it takes to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming a scarer.

It’s something to which Scanlon could relate. “I do think that when a lot of us arrived at college, especially those of us that went to art school, there was this realisation that we weren’t as good as we thought we were. I think the message of the movie has a lot to do with that and how that realisation can open you up to something different.”

Having joined Pixar as a story artist, and now graduated to co-writing and directing his first full-blown Pixar feature, that sentiment doesn’t exactly apply to Scanlon. He does, however, recount how a lot of his colleagues ended up with jobs at Pixar after detouring from something else. “We really just wanted to make a movie that says, ‘Just because you hit this wall, doesn’t mean you’ll never be anything. There could be a better dream.’”

It’s a welcome twist on the you-can-achieve-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to-it fallacy peddled by too many movies – although quite how it might comfort anyone who, for instance, joins Pixar in the hope of becoming a director only to discover they don’t have what it takes is isn’t clear. Does that kind of competition exist?

“Maybe that’s something unique to Pixar,” smiles Scanlon. “I don’t really feel competition. There really is a sense that we’re all rooting for each other’s films. We all want to make the best film and we’re pretty supportive. There has to be a strong level of trust to take big risks and I think the thing we do have to do at Pixar is take big risks.”

There’s an argument that making more prequels and sequels (a Finding Nemo follow-up has also recently been announced) isn’t risky at all – except, perhaps to Pixar’s much vaunted reputation for innovation. The disappointing Cars 2, for instance, felt like the studio had slipped into neutral. On the other hand, Toy Story 2 and 3 are among the greatest animation films ever made, and both took huge risks creatively, particularly the second film, which was made at a time when animation sequels were intended for home video release only.

“I think that we only do it if we have a great story,” insists Scanlon of Pixar’s policy on sequels and prequels. “There’s no motivation beyond that. And we do think of them as original movies.”

Monsters University certainly felt like an original movie for Scanlon. Although the characters of Mike and Sully had to be reverse engineered a little from Monsters, Inc., Scanlon says that the first film’s director Peter Docter encouraged him the most to change the characters and break the story open. “The characters needed to learn a new lesson, so we figured that because they’re 18, they get to be different because we were all different at 18. It wasn’t just a question of putting braces on them.”

• Monsters University is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 23 June (11.45am and 2.45pm) as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.