Several years ago, during the late Michael Eisner period, the Walt Disney Company and Pixar Animation Studios were going through such a catastrophic rough patch in their relationship that a divorce seemed inevitable.
At the peak of that tension, Eisner promised (threatened?) to start cranking out sequel after sequel to beloved Pixar films like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and Toy Story (the latter already had a sequel, done by Pixar). Eisner even put several of these follow-up films into production and started Circle 7, a new animation division with the express purpose to make sequels to Pixar films without Pixar’s involvement.
Such a move certainly had financial motivation, but it was difficult not to see it as plain old soured-relationship spite. Disney-made sequels to Pixar films? It just felt gross and wrong.
In the end, a divorce did happen, but it wasn’t between Disney and Pixar — it was between Disney and Eisner, who was fired. Disney and Pixar not only decided to renew their relationship, but that they should quit messing around living together and actually get married. The wedding ended up costing Disney $7.4 billion (nearly twice what they would pay, six years later, for the entire Star Wars universe). Now Disney owns Pixar, and rather than changing the name, they went with the hyphenated Disney-Pixar surname. They’re so modern.
Then the story took a surprising turn. Almost as quickly as they shut down Circle 7 and all the Pixar sequels in development, Disney-Pixar announced that they would be making Toy Story 3, Cars 2, a Monsters Inc. prequel, and, just recently, Finding Dory. Causing some followers of the story to say, “wait, what?”
Others were more judgmental, their derision barely masking the glee they felt that Perfect Little Pixar was finally selling out:
“Pixar’s lost its touch!”
“Pixar’s stopped making original movies!”
“Pixar is completely out of any good ideas and they’re so lame!”
Which leads me to Pixar’s latest film, which I saw at an early screening last night: Monsters University. This film, which I am saying now is the best work Pixar has done since WALL-E (yes, a little better than both Up and Toy Story 3), has gotten me thinking a lot about sequels, and how they are generally regarded.
Monsters University doesn’t just live up to the original film, it makes the original film better. This sentiment was expressed by Variety writer Justin Chang in a sentence that I love despite disagreeing with its particular usage. In his review of Cars 2, he called that film “the rare sequel that not only improves on but retroactively justifies its predecessor.” (Interestingly, the current version of his review does not contain that line any more, which is a shame, because it’s a great line, even if it’s not right in that particular case).
I liked Cars better than Chang did and I liked Cars 2 less. My main complaint against Cars 2 is that it differs so much tonally from the first film that the two stories make terrible companions, even though both are individually ok.
But Chang’s sentence captures exactly how I feel about Monsters University, which takes place before Monsters Inc., when Mike and Sulley meet in college, and shows how they become friends. But that’s not what the movie is about at all. The movie is surprising and ambitious. And it goes, thematically, where no film before it about goals and dreams ever has. Watching it is like taking a refreshing swig out of a bottle of soda that they only make in your home town. It feels like a true story: true to the first film, true to real life, even though real life is sometimes brutal and painful. This movie goes there and finds the silver lining.
If you were to ask me, without specifics, if I prefer sequels or original films, I would say, without question, original films. But when I was telling my sister that Monsters U is up there with Toy Story 2 among my favorite Pixar films, she pointed out that they are, in fact, sequels. This caused some serious soul-searching.
And I realized that the way we think about sequels — including the way studios go about making them — is all wrong. Sequels should always be better, and deeper, than their originals, and it should be surprising when sequels are bad, not when they are good.
We say that great original films should be left alone. But would we say the same thing about great first dates? No — when first dates are great, we want greater depth with the same person, not more and more first dates. Settling in with a girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife is a different kind of great feeling, and I’d say it is the type of feeling that great sequels can create. Monsters University creates that feeling in spades. Not only do we spend more time with characters we love, but we learn new things about them — including new flaws — that make us feel love them even more than we did before.
The thing is, sequel-bashing is usually justified, because studios almost always break at least one of the Three Deadly Sequel Sins:
- Recycling old material. Some sequels are unessential wastes of time. They offer nothing by way of plot, jokes, or characterization that their predecessors didn’t already cover. A few repeat jokes are ok, but when the film adds nothing new, there’s no point. MU has a very small selection of “encore” jokes and cameos, but it stands entirely on its own as a worthwhile film.
- Totally abandoning old material. Some sequels seem like they were made by people who had never seen the originals. These are just frustrating. Monsters University was made by people who understand the characters of the original so well that they can explore them in totally new ways while never once making us question that these are the same people (or, monsters).
- Thoughtless money-grabs. When sequels try to ride on the coattails of success of previous films, they bring everybody down, even if they fill a few undeserving pockets. Monsters University may have started (maybe) from the question, “what more can we do with this franchise?” but faster than anything, the filmmakers clearly went a different path. They found a story that is as timeless and worthwhile as the original.
Monsters University, despite being a prequel, is as original as any film I’ve seen in a long time. It can best be compared to my favorite film of all time, Toy Story 2, which itself lives undeniably within the world that its first film established, but thematically deals with deeper ideas of mortality and eternity. The first Toy Story only barely touched on those themes, being much more about friendship and identity.
Although Toy Story 3 is a wonderful conclusion to that story, (and it has one of the most entertaining prison escape sequences of any movie, ever), it treads many of the same beats that Toy Story 2 already covered: Lotso is similar to Stinky Pete, and the day care center functions much like the Japanese museum. Toy Story 3 is the most Andy-centered of the three, and the final scene with Andy and Bonnie is unquestionably brilliant — but it’s more of a great conclusion than an entirely original entry in the series.
What is so tremendous about Monsters University is the way it treads new ground and sets up the original film in ways that broaden, complicate, and, as I’ve said already, make the original better.
I understand, intellectually, that the people at Pixar created the characters of Sulley and Mike, rather than discovered them somewhere. But having just rewatched Monsters Inc., I cannot honestly say that I believe that memories of their college days were not already in their heads in 2001. There are scenes in Monsters Inc. that were merely entertaining or cute, but are now rich, complex, and meaningful because of Monsters University. Closer to the release date, when I record my spoiler-filled review of the film on The Pixar Podcast, I’ll go into which scenes those are. There are several, and they are huge.
But for now, suffice it to say, the characters feel real because their creators take them seriously. And now, because of Monsters University, I am more likely to take sequels and prequels seriously, too. I hope — when it takes a miracle for Hollywood to invest in original films anyway — that more studios than Pixar will do the same.