July 26, 2014

The Pixar Perspective on the Importance of Continuity

Over the last year or so, there’s been a trend online where people create short videos in which they list a series of problems they spotted in a mainstream movie, from Skyfall to Looper to The Dark Knight Rises. These videos all have received a disturbing amount of traction, as if their creators deserve a pat on the back for seeing what the rest of us, apparently, didn’t see or chose to ignore. These bite-sized excuses for modern film criticism are created by people who presume they’re being insightful, which is far from the truth. Better still, when they’re called out for their unnecessary whining, as happened when Looper’s director, Rian Johnson, got audibly frustrated at one of these videos, they half-heartedly shield themselves behind the “Oh, it’s just a joke!” excuse. Among Pixar films, Brave avoided this nitpicking—at least on such a grand scale. But if this video is any hint, we may need to batten down the virtual hatches because the nitpickers are already unloading on Monsters University.

The Pixar Perspective

Monsters University - Mike Arrives HD

In that video, someone brought up a point, in a manner of speaking, a few others have mentioned: the premise of Monsters University appears to fly in the face of a throwaway line from Monsters, Inc., where Mike Wazowski mentions having been in the fourth grade with his best friend James P. Sullivan. Yet the concept of Pixar’s new movie is that Mike and Sulley didn’t meet until they went to college roughly a decade before the events of Monsters, Inc. Is there a satisfying explanation for this discrepancy? There are, it seems, two likely answers: either the comment in the 2001 film is meant to be exaggeration for comic effect, or the prequel’s filmmakers just forgot the line of dialogue ever existed. Let’s leave aside which scenario is more likely or more disappointing, and answer this question instead: how much does this bit of continuity matter?



These minor issues of continuity have become a serious albatross on critical discussion revolving around any movie. You can love or hate any movie for any number of reasons, but listing out a series of nitpicks specific to a movie’s continuity or to its similarity to other movies is the antithesis of criticism. That 50-second video, titled “The Problem with Monsters University,” is of a piece with these YouTubed lists, in which we’re meant to see the error of our ways in liking some movie. The video’s creators presume they’re wise, but even in less than a minute, there’s zero substance here. In case you weren’t clear on the argument being made, the person or persons who created the video slowed down the footage. Now we can hear Billy Crystal bursting the airtight plot of Monsters University extra-slow thanks to audio-manipulation technology, as if it’s meant to prove something definitive.

Monsters University - Campus

These videos serve one purpose: to ruin your experience with any movie. You liked The Dark Knight Rises, huh? Well, here are 20 reasons why that movie and your enjoyment of it make no sense. And make no mistake, this is not hyperbole, no more than the video titles themselves. You could go to this YouTube channel and see “everything wrong” with recent films like Prometheus, The Avengers, and even Battleship, which deserves the word “everything” applied to a question of what its failures were. The myriad explanations of what’s supposedly faulty about these movies often can simply be chalked up to the person making the video not buying what’s on screen, or just finding one character action or motivation to be head-scratching. (You may think Charlize Theron’s character in Prometheus shouldn’t have run in a straight line when attempting to not get crushed by a falling spaceship, but that doesn’t make you the next Roger Ebert.)

Pregame nitpicking like what’s happening with Monsters University is even more tiresome, for numerous reasons. On the surface, let’s be honest: if the worst thing about Monsters University is that its entire existence could possibly, but not definitively, be debated thanks to a offhand remark in its “sequel,” then we’re all going to be very happy campers come June 21. On a deeper level, a troubling reaction that has sprung up with these nitpick-heavy videos and articles is that a movie is treated as something to reveal as imperfect, as if Hollywood makes these films and hopes we forget or don’t notice its flaws. Cinema is, at its heart, a grand illusion, smoke and mirrors used to entertain us, to make us laugh, to make us cry, and more. But it is nothing more than a series of illusions. No one can make a perfect movie, no more than they can make a perfect apple pie, because no audience will wholly accept what they’re presented with as flawless.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

This is not to say that we should stop analyzing a film and acknowledging its flaws. A good number of movies that receive the nitpick treatment deserve to be criticized, such as Prometheus. Nitpicks, however, are not a good substitute for a substantive critique. If Monsters University is a disappointment compared to Monsters, Inc., the reasons will not be restricted to Mike and Sulley spending time in a monster version of elementary school. The Internet has allowed all of us a critical voice, but to echo a point from Ratatouille, just because we all can do something doesn’t mean we should. The people who compile a series of niggling bugs in modern movies aren’t automatically incapable of cogent criticism, but they do themselves and the film community a disservice by choosing to contribute in this way.

But is there a way to criticize Monsters University either now or after it’s released, specifically considering that line of dialogue from Monsters, Inc.? Forcing people to realize this potential flaw feels more futile and empty than most nitpicks. Maybe the finished film will actually address the dialogue, but it’s unlikely. We can be annoyed about the lack of continuity—though, again, the line can be read differently so it doesn’t negate the possibility of a prequel. But why should this be the tipping point of continuity issues in movies? Continuity, of course, does matter in storytelling; a lack thereof proves how little the storyteller thought through their characters and plot details. Continuity matters in all forms of writing, but what we fixate on regarding movie continuity is often miniscule, like the Mike/Sully line. Go to any movie’s entry on the Internet Movie Database and you’ll see these kinds of nitpicks in a Goofs section. Somewhere along the line, a growing number of people presumed these minor infractions should be taken so seriously that the movies themselves are invalidated.

Speculating about Monsters University and its plot is all well and good. Being put out that Pixar’s filmmakers—Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter are involved in this film, so there’s no weird way to excuse new filmmakers somehow forgetting the original—may have ignored whatever is deemed canon in the Monstropolis universe is fine. Where people step wrong is in obsessing over this minutia. That 50-second video isn’t the equivalent of the Zapruder tapes, no matter how much its creators may wish to be hoisted up by his peers as a champion. A variation on the line “We were in fourth grade together” is not the equivalent of “Back, and to the left.” What it represents is a retcon, something we wish to think Pixar is better than. Retroactive continuity, specifically in this case, is vexing and merely allows naysayers to presume Pixar’s only doing a prequel for the money.

Monsters University Concept Art

We can, however, only wonder about that fact right now. If Pixar pulls another rabbit out of their hat as they did with the Toy Story sequels, we’ll forget about the lack of connection between Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University. These videos, which litter the Internet like cigarette butts on the side of the road, are simply frustrating. How much time was spent on a 50-second scrap of footage meant to prove to us all the “problem” with Monsters University? The Internet is not so pointless that every second we spend on it could be spent doing something more valuable, but if you’re about to write up a list about ten nitpicks you have with Movie X, it’s time to take a walk around the block so you can purge those thoughts into thin air.

Online discourse has become so fractured, to the point where various film websites take these videos as being newsworthy, if only because it will drive up pageviews.  The videos are fodder for angry comment boards, where one faction will argue for, in this case, Pixar being the devil and Monsters University an obvious cashgrab; the other will, just as valiantly, shout the opposition down and everyone’s voices will get lost in the mire. All that results from nitpicking videos is pointless outrage. Flawed or not, movies like Prometheus, The Avengers, and Brave deserve and demand a thoughtful analysis of the themes within, and whether those films are successful in their overall aims and ambitions. Unless something totally surprising happens, Monsters University will also merit such an analysis, and one that can’t fully be achieved a week or even a month after its release. The online community is so dominated by impatience—again, we’re seeing this video as damning evidence three months before the movie opens in North America—that we sidestep a reflective period. Focusing on minor issues of continuity, either in the world of Pixar or in the wider world of film, is a perfect case of missing the forest for the trees. Cinema deserves a more consistently intelligent discussion encircling its existence; the Monsters University video and others like it are more embarrassing than the so-called problems they mean to call out and shame.

About Josh Spiegel

Josh isn't just a Disney buff, a film buff, or a TV buff. He's a pop-culture obsessive, through and through. His long journey began in Western New York and has taken him to the American Southwest, where he resides with his wife and six--count 'em, six--cats. Among his favorite overall films are Singin' In The Rain, There Will Be Blood, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Royal Tenenbaums. His favorite Disney movie (non-Pixar) is Beauty and the Beast, but his favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and he thinks the latter is at least five times better than the former. Read more of Josh's work at Movie Mezzanine.

  • JayEllCee12

    Okay, I will admit…I was one of those people who noticed the line in the first movie and became sceptical of the whole premise of Monsters University. I’d like to see them try and work that line into the continuity, like Mike and Sulley went to the same elementary school, but barely knew each other, for example, and so the line is a joke in the first movie. But overall, it really shouldn’t matter: I won’t constantly be waiting throughout Monsters University for them to explain that line, I’ll just be enjoying the film that I’m seeing, right there and then. If people are going to obsess over one line and over-think it, then they need to find something better to do. And making videos pointing out these things doesn’t make you smarter: I think Cinemasins’ YouTube videos are meant to be humourous, but they really don’t come off that way, for me, at least.

  • Randy Grossert

    While I agree that continuity is overrated, I don’t agree with the notion that it should be dismissed as an outdated concept completely. A good movie without continuity issues should always be more valued than a similarly good movie with continuity issues. Period.

    The Cinema Sins videos are clearly supposed to be satirical and have never ruined any movie for me, personally. In a way, I like how they remind moviemakers that some people do actually pay attention to what’s going on the screen, which can’t be a bad thing.

    Speaking about continuity and Monsters University, however, is a different story. First, the 50 second video is truly ridiculous. Second, Mike’s boasting and lying in Monsters, Inc. knows no boundaries, so his line cannot be always taken seriously. Third, I believe there are more prominent continuity issues, like the horrible quality of young scarers that doesn’t really work well with the whole “Scarer is like an Astronaut for monsters” mantra.

  • Justin

    Its also possible that Mike and Sulley did meet in the 4th grade but didn’t recognize each other in college. They might not have realized the connection until after or possibly during the events of “Monsters University”. I would not be surprised if the line is addressed. Regardless, as pointed out here, the line can easily be interpreted in different ways so it doesn’t really screw up the story’s timeline even if MU doesn’t address it.

  • Lewis

    I think the way Mike says the line and Sulley’s reaction to it easily justify interpreting it as being a throwaway joke between friends and not literal. They were teasing each other in that scene anyway, and it’s not crucial to the film’s storyline. Anyway from what we’ve seen of Monsters University, I think it will strengthen the original film in lots of ways which will make people forget about the fourth grade line anyway.

  • Kelsey Lee Gross

    Isn’t this article doing to those mentioned YouTube channels what they do to movies?