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'Monsters University' breaks the prequel curse

Published: Thursday, June 27 2013 6:45 p.m. MDT

Mike amongst other MU monsters.

Disney/Pixar

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I found “Monsters University” unusually disturbing.

It’s not because I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the contrary — I found it to be one of Pixar’s better offerings, and, given that studio’s perfect non-“Cars 2” track record, that’s high praise on this end. Plus, “Monsters, Inc.” was always one of my favorites, and I had long hoped for a sequel, not a prequel, that could have been the equal of the original film.

(Personally, I have a dynamite idea that involves Sully and Mike going undercover in the human world to save a now-teenage Boo from all manner of teenagerish peril. Pixar executives, you can reach me via the email at the bottom of this article if you want more details, or if you feel the need to send me a royalty check.)

To my surprise, “Monsters University” succeeds as a worthy companion to “Monsters, Inc.” while, at the same time, covering new ground that the original didn’t. It was funny, clever, poignant and visually gorgeous. I found myself pleasantly surprised, entirely entertained and, as I mentioned at the outset, unusually disturbed.

One of these things is not like the other.

But I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I’m shaken to my core. The fact is that “Monsters University” is the movie that has caused me to question one of the bedrock principles by which I live: Prior to seeing this film, I was firmly convinced that there was no such thing as a good prequel.

This axiom has been proven time and again in both theory and practice.

Theoretically, a prequel can’t possibly succeed. All dramatic tension is eliminated when you know the final fate of the characters before the story even begins. So it’s hard to cheer for that brat shouting “Yippee” in the Tattooine pod race when you know he ends up all Darth Vadery after a couple more really, really bad movies.

Of course, it’s the "Star Wars" prequels that provide the practical — dare I say “empirical?” — evidence that prequels, as a rule, stink. But they’re just the most public prequel failures.

Movies like “Psycho IV: The Beginning” and “Butch and Sundance: The Early Years” are probably just as rancid, but nobody remembers them. Or maybe there’s a huge fanbase for “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” that I’ve overlooked. In any case, prior to “Monsters,” I had seen no evidence that prequels are capable of not stinking.

As I’ve discussed this with friends, they’ve offered up several possible exceptions to my rule. “The Hobbit,” for instance, doesn’t stink, but it’s not really a prequel, either. It was written before “The Lord of the Rings,” even though it was filmed afterward. Some cite non-stinky movies like J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” and Daniel Craig’s debut Bond performance in “Casino Royale” as good prequels. But those aren’t prequels; they’re reboots. The characters in them aren’t limited by what happened in other movies.

One movie that straddles the prequel/reboot line is “X-Men: First Class,” which is technically a prequel, but one that works more like a reboot. Professor X ends up in a wheelchair and at odds with Magneto by the end of the movie, despite being fully ambulatory and partnering with his not-yet-nemesis at the beginning of “X-Men 3: The Last Stand.” So you get the sense that they’re starting over, not filling in the blanks.

But now we have “Monsters University.” The first fully satisfying prequel ever committed to film. What’s next? Well, J.K. Rowling wrote a one-page Harry Potter prequel that wasn’t so awful. And there’s an X-Men sequel/prequel called “Days of Future Past” in production that might not be lousy. It’s a brave new world out there.

“Brave New World.” Now there’s a prequel just waiting to happen…

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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