By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
EMERYVILLE, Calif.—It’s easy to see where the Pixar animators gathered some of their ideas for their newest film, “Monsters University.” They simply had to look around the campus-like grounds of their pioneering animation house just 45 minutes from San Francisco. Stout brick buildings, a tree-lined entrance, a vast grassy quad and lots of places to roam and contemplate, the bustling studio certainly has something in common with the hallowed halls of learning that appear in the movie.
The latest creation from the makers of the “Toy Story” and “Cars” films, “Monsters University” tells the story of how big and furry James P. “Sulley” Sullivan and diminutive one-eyed Mike Wazowski met and became best friends.
The characters, voiced again by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, respectively, made their entrance into animation history in 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” They played, in essence blue-collar monsters, whose job was to scare human children at night as they slept in their bedrooms. The monsters dutifully roared, collecting the children’s screams to power their Monster city, which lurked behind the kids’ closet doors. All heck broke loose when Sulley inadvertently brought a human child back to his world, and his best friend Mike had to help protect him from getting caught harboring a human by the Monster universe authorities. The movie was, well, a monster hit worldwide.
Years later, the filmmakers decided there was more story to tell, but instead of going forward with Mike and Sulley, they decided to explain how the two unlikely friends met. Why not go back 10 or 15 years before they became accomplished Scarers? Thus was borne the idea for “Monsters University.”
“We chose college because we wanted to see their relationship develop when they were adult enough to still be similar enough to the characters from the first film,” explains the boyish-looking Dan Scanlon, who directed the animated feature.
A veteran of Disney and Pixar movies, including “The Little Mermaid 2,” in which he served as the director and “Cars” and “Toy Story 3,” where he served as a storyboard artist, Scanlon succeeded “Monsters, Inc.” director Pete Docter in taking Mike and Sulley back in time.
“We felt that college is so much about self-discovery, finding out who you are,” he says. “We had scripted versions where they met younger and then skipped ahead to college. We knew, though, we didn’t want to make ‘Monsters Elementary,’ so (Pixar co-founder and Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter and Pete Docter gave us the go-ahead to set it in college because, ultimately, you have to do what’s best for both stories in the long run.”
Scanlon and his team of 250 artists, writers and technicians set about making a G-rated college comedy populated by all sorts of monsters—from flying bat-like creatures to aquatic critters to slow-moving slugs. And, of course, Mike and Sulley.
The story centers on Mike, who has wanted to become a Scarer ever since an elementary school field trip to Monsters, Inc. opened his eye to the world of scaring. Now college-age, wide-eyed retainer-wearing Mike can’t wait to learn the fine art of scaring but his diminutive size and naïve overeagerness make him a little uncool with the various fraternities. He winds up in the least popular Greek house alongside Sulley, a naturally scary monster but a bit of a slacker. The two, along with an odd assortment of monster outcasts in their Oozma Kappa house, eventually learn they have to work cooperatively to compete against the more established and cool frat houses at the university in a series of scaring games.
In addition to the returning Crystal and Goodman, the family friendly comedy features an all-star cast of vocal talents including Steve Buscemi, Sean P. Hayes, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, John Ratzenberger and Dame Helen Mirren, who provides the voice of Dean Hardscrabble. As her name suggests, Hardscrabble is one tough faculty head in whose hands (or more specifically legs) Mike and Sulley’s future lies.
Originally written as a male character, Hardscrabble changed sexes when the filmmakers decided midway through development that the character should be female. And who better to play intimidating and intelligent than the Academy Award winning Mirren (“The Queen”)?
“At one point, it dawned on me that we didn’t see many female Scarers in the first film,” recalls Scanlon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird. “It just wasn’t a part of the story. So I just felt it would be a great way to open up the world and showcase a great female Scarer.”
He says he couldn’t have been more pleased with Mirren’s voice performance. Her character is designed to look like a Scolopendra Gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede.
“Helen just brought so much to the role,” the filmmaker marvels. “She brought an intimidating quality to the character but she also is intelligent and strong.”
The film’s producer, Kori Rae, another Pixar veteran, says making Hardscrabble female made sense story-wise, which is always the most important factor in creating films at the studio.
“We know it made sense in terms of the story because then we could create a more complex character and open it up and have a great female Scarer,” she says.
She says Pixar is striving to create more prevalent female characters in their films as they did with their titian-haired heroine in “Brave.”
“We’re trying to get more women in the story department and animation department,” Rae explains. “We have a number of female writers working on films in development. The truth is, part of the reason we don’t have more female characters (in the films) is because we don’t have a lot of females in the story department. They’ve been difficult to find. Filmmaking, in general, is male-dominated, but we’re definitely trying to change that here.”
Of course, at the center of the film are Mike and Sulley, as voiced by Crystal and Goodman. The filmmakers say the actors were thrilled to revisit the characters they first gave voice to a dozen years ago. Pixar creative chief Lasseter pitched the idea of a prequel to Crystal at his 50th birthday party and then Crystal talked it over with Goodman.
“It was great seeing John and Billy hear this pitches and then come in and own them,” Scanlon recalls. “Mike’s still funny and precocious but we also have to get behind his dream and believe in it and believe in him. So he has to be sincere. That was the big new part for Billy. We told him, “Even though you’re funny and cracking jokes, we have to feel that this dream (of becoming a Scarer) means something to your character.” Billy’s such a great actor it was fun to see him take the character to this naïve and eager place.”
Goodman had to kind of adjust his depiction of Sulley from the go-along, get-along nice guy that he was in “Monsters, Inc.” to the cockier, almost arrogant freshman in “Monsters University.”
“We had versions of the script where Sulley was a quiet, shy guy who didn’t think he was a good Scarer,” says Scanlon. “But if you look at him, he’s enormous, so that wouldn’t make much sense. So we thought we should acknowledge his size. At 18, looking the way he does, he’d be this cocky guy. The fun of it was having John Goodman take it and make him a lovable jerk. He’s the guy you roll your eyes at but you also laugh at. So when we told John about the character, John said, ‘Oh yeah. I know this guy.’ People might, at first, say, ‘That’s not Sulley,’ but then you’re going to see how he become this nice guy.”
Scanlon says he was pleased to get Crystal and Goodman in the recording booth together for some of the sessions because they could play off each other and inject some of their unique brand of humor into the characters.
“They’re both funny guys, so they inherently improvised with each other,” he says, adding, “but half if was unusable. We’d say to them, ‘that’s hilarious but we can’t say that in this family movie’.”
The filmmakers also looked at a host of comedies about college life for inspiration but kept the humor family friendly.
“We realized early on as long as they’re wild and rowdy, smashing things and eating too much, that kind of subs in for the unseemly aspects of college life,” he says. “So many college movies seem to be set in the 1980s, and while ‘Monsters University’ isn’t set in a specific time period, we kind of have a nod to the 1980s in there. The character designers were always throwing in mullet hairdos here and there and there were some colors that suggested the ‘80s.”
The biggest challenge of the computer-generated animation production was creating nearly 500 characters.
“It’s so dense with so many students (monsters),” recalls Scanlon. “Plus, it wasn’t just crowds of people walking around in the same way. We had slugs and flying (monsters), so everybody looked different. Those were some of the big technical challenges.”