Hi, how are you? What about this weather hey? Yeah and that controversial social issue is just so controversial right now! Did you hear what that prominent member of society had to say about it? And the backlash? I know, right? Here, take a seat. Not that one; that’s mine. I’d offer you something to drink but we’re out of milk, and I don’t trust you enough to leave you alone in my house while I go and get some. Trust issues; YAY! Whatever. I’m Tom, not that Tom (fifth most popular boy’s name in the year we were born- source: my brain), and it’s my first time – please be gentle.
Anyway now that we’ve got the awkward introductions out of the way we can move onto the meatier parts of the conversation and get serious up in here.
There’s A World Hiding In Your Closet
Last month saw the release of Pixar’s latest installment in its collection of highly successful animated hits: Monsters University, a follow-up to 2001s Monsters Inc. This prequel tells the story of how Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski and John Goodman’s loveable Sully became friends after meeting at University. It is also only the studio’s fourth sequel. This last statistic is perhaps the most intriguing considering that we live in a market where film studios enjoy flogging franchises to death once they’ve hit onto a good thing. It’s a market where we have four Shrek films, The Hobbit gets split into three movies and there are way too many Die Hards, which is something I never thought I would say.
Whatever that says about what we as an audience go and see, it says more about Pixar’s integrity that they have only made sequels where a sequel has presented itself. Considering their most recent sequel, Cars 2, bombed both commercially and critically you could understand if there was some reluctance to tread down that path again. Luckily, Monsters University delivers the goods on all fronts. It raked in a killing at the box office, and this big kid can assure you that it was full of those trademark Pixar moments that make you laugh and then force you not to cry in front of hundreds of school-kids who want to know, why that man is breathing heavily into his popcorn?
The reason for this is simple: The world of the monsters is beautifully realized on all levels. And thus we arrive at the POINT.
World-building sounds like a job for the art department. It sounds like something involving rendering and pencils and geographical scoping. And that’s a part of it. However creating a ‘world’ is so much more than just the visual aspects the audiences see on the screen, and a lot of it is done in the pre-production stages of a film. In fact, a lot of the world is established while the script is still being written, and so it should. After all, the world is one of the most important aspects of any film. It sets up more than just the ‘where’ but also more complex things such as social class, economy, rules and sets up how characters are going to interact within said world.
Monsters University has three excellent examples of this sort of world building.
1. It’s Animal House Without John Belushi
Yes it’s a movie about monsters, yes it’s set in an alternate dimension that is somehow accessible via, and yes one of its main characters is a centipede with wings – but at it’s heart this film is a college movie. It taps into the same world as Animal House, Greek and The House Bunny. This is why it works. Monsters University takes these conventions and story elements that we understand and indentify with, and works them into a world that is total alien – but still feels familiar because we’ve seen these world ‘tropes’ before.
The story hinges on the classic college experience. There is a rag-tag group of underdogs in a frat/sorority that we fall in love with. There is a group of much cooler people in another rival frat/sorority. There is even a hard-nosed Dean of Students, who has an open dislike of our heroes, looking to find any reason to turf them out the gates. And while this sounds like it is undermining the film by saying it’s been done before, it is in fact the opposite.
Monsters University builds a familiar world, and then using that as a blueprint it expands on it and manipulates it to create something new and exciting. These little additions are things like the letters of the frat house’s spelling out onomatopoeias like RAR and HSS, or that the traditionally crabby librarian is giant slug with monstrous tentacles, and they serve the dual function of building a world that makes sense for monsters and a world that makes sense for the college environment it is portraying.
2. Our World Is Worse
I wrote earlier about how one of the functions of world-building is to set-up the rules of that world. For example, in a film like The Dark Knight, one of the key rules of that particular world is that Batman does not kill anyone. This is set up early and is brought back into the film as a pertinent plot point. In Monsters University, one of the key rules of the world is that humans are toxic and that the human world is a dangerous place indeed. This is simply building on a premise underscored throughout the first film. The beauty of prequels/sequels/spin-offs etc is that elements of the world are already established:
“There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you.”
– Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn)
But of course you have to reinforce this. The above line is from the first ten minutes of Monsters Inc. In Monsters University, we again get a warning about the dangers of the human world quite early in the piece during Mike Wazowski’s school trip to a real working scare floor. So the key rule of the story world we are inhabiting is set up from the outset, and while it makes way for more rules during the midsections of the story, it is this rule that comes back into play in the finale, where we see Mike & Sully stranded in the human world.
Now this underpinning law to the entire world isn’t only demonstrated through spoken warnings, but also in character’s reactions. For example, even the unflappable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is panicked by the idea of something coming through from the other side. This adds another layer to the world’s key rule, but Pixar’s approach to the creation of worlds is a three-strike-punch and the final layer is indeed added in post-production.
Aesthetically we see from the outset that the monsters live in a vibrant world. They are brightly coloured and everything around them is fun and exciting. However, once they cross that threshold between home and the realm of men, they transform into something else. They become fearsome beasts with claws, that lurk in the shadows. This is because our world is a lot scarier than theirs. Our world is the place where they have to truly be monsters. This is also evident in the depictions of the real world as having a lot of dark colours and long shadows.
3. It’s Right Here In Our World
It’s not unusual for films to create websites or online spaces to advertise their upcoming blockbuster, but it’s usually a separation of the film world and the marketing world. However with Monsters University there isn’t this separation as much as there is just a branching out of the story world out into the real world. A bridge between the two, rather than two separate islands.
The Monsters University website (which I urge you to check out here) is set out like a university website with information on enrollment, classes and accommodation. There is even a merchandise store where you can buy four-armed hoodies (sadly this is restricted to shipping within the US). But perhaps this is the next step for world-building in films. To combine story elements and aesthetic elements, but to also then go the next step up and incorporate commercial elements into the world.
Monsters University does is. It bridges the gap into the audience and allows them in turn to add their own touches to world. To be a part of it. To go through to the other side of the closet…