Making Monsters University a fearsome summer hit

Filmmakers Dan Scanlon and Kori Rae discuss going back in time, visiting college campuses and falling in love with the Monster world all over again

This weekend’s box office wasn’t topped by Superman, White House defenders, zombie fighters or even a pair of oddball police officers. Instead, monsters kept their title as “big man on campus” with Pixar’s Monsters University.

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Twelve years after cinemagoers were first introduced to go-getting, green cyclops Mike Wazowski and Sulley Sullivan, the furry blue giant with the heart of gold, the odd couple return for a prequel as college freshman, and aspiring scarers, studying at Monsters University. And it turns out things weren’t always so rosy for the friends, who actually despised each other upon first meeting and only settled their differences after a final exam hiccup and  getting kicked out of school together, forced them to team up in order to gain readmission to the prestigious university.

Just as our heroes are enthusiastic for their first days at university, producer Kori Rae and director Dan Scanlon say they were excited to start the project.

“As soon as I found out that we were possibly talking about another film taking place in the monster world, I threw my hat in the ring,” Rae says. Also producer of the original PIxar animated movie Monsters, Inc., she says talk of a second instalment began five years ago: “I knew I definitely wanted to work on it.” 

Scanlon, meanwhile, was still new to Pixar when the company introduced the rest of the world to the Monster community. Breathing new life into an already established franchise was a challenge, but with the support of the original film’s director, Pete Docter, Scanlon bridges the two periods and adds a spin to the world fans know and love.

“I think that we just wanted to live up to the first film,” he says. “It’s always tough when you’re making a sequel or a prequel, but luckily we fell in love with some of the new characters. It was also exciting to change the characters of Mike and Sulley a little bit. In the beginning they’re very different, which is risky, but part of what’s exciting about making these films.”

Setting the scene accurately required some work, too.

“It had been a while since most of us had been in college, so we visited universities around the US to remind ourselves of what it was like,” Rae says. “College is a time of self discovery, so it was useful to be on the campus and see the students to be reminded that they’re out on their own for the first time. They feel like their whole life is ahead of them.”

Along with the return of leading voice artists Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sulley, Monsters University is stocked with a long list of Hollywood heavy-hitters. Promise of a Monsters prequel even got a certain Queen involved. Helen Mirren scares as the stony-hearted Dean Hardscrabble, the one who deals Mike and Sulley their expulsion notices.

“We were very lucky that a lot of the people in the film were not only fans of Pixar, but also fans of Monsters, Inc.,” Scanlon says. “In the case of Helen Mirren, we were so lucky to get her. She actually auditioned for the part — she wanted to — because she wanted to make sure she was the right fit. It can be hard in animation to find spontaneity, so to spend a day working out the character with an actress like her was just a dream come true.”

Dreams come true for Mike and Sulley, too, although not quite the way they expect. Scanlon explains that in this film, the monsters face the real world and some real life lessons.

“So often we say, ‘If you work hard and never give up, you can be anything you want,’” he says. “It’s a great message, however it’s not always the case. We’ve all experienced failures in our lives, and we wanted to use Mike’s story as an opportunity to tell a story for those people, the people who have just hit a roadblock, and remind them that it’s normal and sometimes it’s actually a detour to something better.”

The prequel is the first of Pixar’s kind and opened in the US in June. It ended its opening weekend at number one in the box office with $82m, the company’s second biggest opening following 2010’s Toy Story 3 release.

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Monsters University roars into UK theatres on 12 July.