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Secrets From Pixar's
It took five years
-- and dozens of rewrites -- for the story department at Pixar Animation
Studios to get the script for their latest feature just right. Jim Hill
now reveals some of the other possible Monsters, Inc. storylines that
movie-goers missed out on.
After all, the film's made an absolute killing at the box office. After little more than a month into the movie's domestic release, "Monsters, Inc." has grossed over $200 million. (To put this in perspective: you'd have to add together the domestic box office totals for Walt Disney Pictures' last three animated releases [The Emperor's New Groove: $87 million; Recess: School's Out: $36 million; and Atlantis: The Lost Empire: $83 million] before you even came close to equaling what Monsters, Inc. has earned just since its November 2nd debut.)
Of course, one has to wonder: Would this Pixar production still have been as huge a hit with movie-goers this holiday season if Monsters, Inc. had stuck with its original storyline?
Which original storyline am I talking about? Well, instead of sweet two-year-old Boo, imagine if Monsters, Inc. had been built around a 32-year-old computer programmer whose life becomes incredibly complicated once his childhood fears and phobias suddenly become real.
Sounds like an unlikely premise for a family film, doesn't it? Well, for almost a year, this is the story idea that Monsters, Inc. director Peter Docter seriously tried to turn into a workable screenplay. According to this scenario: The hero of the film was supposed to be a computer programmer who is leading this incredibly humdrum life. The guy's career and love life were going nowhere. He's at a dead end, spiritually and emotionally. All seems lost until the guy's mother (who's in the process of turning his old bedroom into a guest room) sends the computer programmer a box full of his childhood belongings.
Among the objects in this box is a book of a drawings that the computer programmer made when he was a kid. "And what are these drawings of?" you ask. The monsters that our hero used to dream up back when he was six or seven. As the computer programmer opens up this book, some loose pages flutter to the floor of his cubicle at work. He thinks nothing of this... Until the monsters on these pages suddenly spring to life, stepping out into the real world and begin harassing the poor guy.
What was supposed to follow ... Well, Docter was hoping that Pixar could produce a film that would put a post-modern spin on that old 1950 Universal Pictures / Jimmy Stewart classic, Harvey. You see, only the computer programmer can see the monsters that were now bedeviling him. None of this guy's co-workers are aware of the nightmarish creatures that are now making this guy's life a living hell.
Over time, the film's story would be revealed that these monsters aren't just any monsters. They were the actual physical incarnations of the computer programmer's childhood fears. Phobias that continue to hold this guy back even in his adult life. And -- as our hero dealt with each of these creatures -- he'd end up confronting one of his childhood fears. And once he did so ... That monster would disappear.
I know, I know. This story doesn't sound nearly as light-hearted and fun as spending time on the Scare Floor with Mike & Sulley. But that was really the whole point of the original version of "Monsters, Inc." For the folks at Pixar were trying to do something a little different, something a little more ambitious than Toy Story, A Bug's Life or Toy Story II. They envisioned this movie as being one that was supposed to have had a happy but somewhat bittersweet ending. Docter was actually hoping that audiences would tear up as the computer programmer confronted his very last fear... which would cause the very last monster (which the computer programmer had befriended) to fade from sight.
But -- in the end -- Pixar's story team just couldn't figure out how to make the film's central figure (IE: The nerdy computer programmer who lacked self confidence) a compelling character that audiences could really care about. In every draft of the story, this guy kept getting upstaged by the monsters who were trying to teach him how to overcome his fears; which is why Docter and his story guys eventually gave up and -- after dropping the computer programmer entirely -- decided to make the nightmarish creatures Monsters, Inc.'s central characters. Now the big question is: How do you make monsters sympathetic? How do you take deliberately unsightly, scary characters and turn them into something that audiences can care about, root for?
This is why -- for the longest time -- the film's story called for Sulley to be this completely downtrodden creature. According to this version of the scenario: James P. Sullivan used to be the top scarer at Monsters, Inc. ... Until some horrible kid-related incident left the big blue guy with the Monstropolis equivalent of post traumatic stress syndrome. Worse than that, this unexplained event ruined Sulley's eyesight. Since Sulley can't see very well anymore (He has to wear these big, thick set of prescription glasses), he can't work the closets any longer.
Which is why -- as this version of the movie opens -- Sulley has been demoted. He now works out back on the factory's loading dock (well away from the Scare Floor), piling up scream canisters and making them ready for delivery. Everyone else who works at Monsters, Inc. whispers behind the big blue guy's back about what has become of the company's top scarer. The only person who's really still kind to Sulley is Mike Wazowski, who (in this version of the story) is Randall's Scare Assistant. Mike remembers what Sulley was like back in the good old days... and treats the big guy with the respect and good humor that he thinks the company's former top scarer deserves.
You see where Docter and his story team were going with this version of Monsters, Inc.? In spite of his somewhat monstrous appearance, James P. Sullivan was -- almost from the very moment you saw him -- a highly sympathetic character. Someone with some very real problems (IE: His deep fear of children, not to mention his horrible eyesight) that had to be overcome. Which hopefully would make the somewhat unsightly character someone audiences could root for.
The only problem with this version of the Monsters, Inc. story is that... Well, the backstory just took too long to tell. Plus it left audiences with too many unanswered questions. Questions like:
This version of the script painted Monsters, Inc. story team (now lead by Andrew Stanton, co-director of Pixar's 1998 hit, A Bug's Life) into an awful corner, story-wise. Which was why -- in the end -- they opted to drop Sulley's depressing backstory and turn him back into Monsters, Inc.'s top scarer. Then -- based on the chemistry that vocal performers John Goodman & Billy Crystal had shown in the scenes that their characters had shared -- it was then decided that Mike Wazowski would now become Sulley's (not Randall's) Scare Assistant.
Slowly but surely, the film's essential story pieces began to fall into place. Still, the most important piece -- I.E. the human character that Sulley would interact with -- continued to elude the Monsters, Inc. story team. For the longest time, Boo (as the character was now known) was a jaded 12-year-old girl. There were also versions of the movie's storyline where Boo was a 10-year-old tomboy, an 6-year-old spoiled brat, and even an 8-year-old boy. But none of these variations of the film's seemingly essential human character ended up helping the film. If anything, dealing with all of Boo's dialogue tended to bog down the pace of Monsters, Inc. storyline.
It was only when director Peter Docter convinced the folks at Pixar to allow him to change the human character into a two-year-old girl who could had only just begun to talk that Monsters, Inc. finally began firing on all four cylinders. With all but a few lines of Boo's dialogue eliminated, now the pace of the film picked up big-time. And -- with a sweet little girl at the very heart of the film (Someone that audiences would fall in love with the second they saw her, as well as being someone that Sulley could easily come to care about) -- the last piece of the story seemed to finally be in place.
This isn't to say that the rest of production on Monsters, Inc. went smoothly. From Peter Docter's first fumblings around for a solid story idea back in 1996 'til today, the people at Pixar put in five hard years of work on this film -- trying to get things just right. And these guys were still on the job as late as June of this year, when they were slipping additional gags into the movie's introductory simulator room sequence -- trying to make audiences aware as quickly as possible that Monsters, Inc.'s main goal was to entertain -- not frighten -- youngsters.
Of course, all this last minute plussing of the picture didn't stop the folks at Pixar from slipping a few in-jokes to Monsters, Inc. Most of these gags, you folks are probably already aware of. But have you heard about the Monsters, Inc. joke that won't pay off 'til the Summer of 2003?
What am I talking about? The next time you see this Pixar picture, pay very close attention to the sequence toward the end of Monsters, Inc. where Boo first reenters her bedroom. The little girl's so happy to be back home that she's almost bouncing off the walls. As Boo dances excitedly around the room, the toddler begins scooping up toys and handing them to Sully.
Now I'm sure (given that most everyone who reads Digital Media FX is a hardcore computer animation fan) that all of you already know that the doll that Boo handed Sully was actually Jessie from Disney / Pixar's 1999 release, Toy Story II. And some of you might also have recognized that the rubber ball that the toddler hands to her big blue furry friend is the one that's featured in Pixar's 1986 short, "Luxo, Jr."
But what about that rubber clown fish? You know, the orange one with the wide white stripes? That -- my friends -- is the title character of Pixar's next project, Finding Nemo. This still-in-production film deals with a boy clownfish who is kidnapped, spirited away from his coral reef home. Nemo's dad must then journey through numerous dangerous worlds -- above and below the water -- before he can rescue his boy.
This upcoming Disney / Pixar project isn't even supposed to hit theaters 'til June 2003 . But -- from that point forward -- every child (or adult) who watches Monsters, Inc. on video or DVD will view this particular scene in the film in a whole new way. They'll immediately realize that Nemo had been hiding in plain sight (so to speak) in Boo's bedroom all along. But no one knew (except you, me and everyone who works at Pixar) who that little rubber fish really was ... 'til now.
Got any additional secrets from Pixar's closet that you'd like to share? Just drop me a line and -- if your story's any good -- I'll be happy to post it here to share with the rest of the Digital Media FX family.
Jim Hill is an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive an advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.
Based out of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites. He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.
You can email Jim Hill at email@example.com.
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