When it comes to methods by which Hollywood keeps franchises going, the prequel seems the hardest to legitimize. From a marketing standpoint prequels offer viewers more time with beloved characters just like a regular sequel, but can be useful particularly when those characters have met an untimely end in their franchise's present chronology. Plus, fictional world building often requires some epic backstory to set everything up. When looking for additional stories to tell in a particular universe, it's probably very tempting to go with the one that audiences are already somewhat familiar with via exposition.
Narratively, however, prequels are hard to make interesting, primarily because they can only end with a predetermined outcome. Those franchises who manage to buck this trend tend to do so with the aid of time travel (Planet of the Apes, Terminator), general weirdness (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) or by turning the whole prequel label into a wholly uncertain grey area (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, X-Men: First Class).
Prequels are nothing new. Shakespeare's highly regarded Henry V and Henry IV plays were all prequels to his earlier Henry VI plays. The Chronicles of Narnia series has two prequels in its midsts. But even in literature, prequels' origins come with a particularly naked commercial and cynical motivation. The Dune series has two prequels, both published decades after the original and not written by the original author. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Rising seems to have been written solely to help influence a prequel film that was going to happen whether he liked it or not.
Filmwise, there's almost no contest: prequels have a bad reputation and inspire far more dread than excitement. Just saying "The Prequels" will earn shudders of disgust for the term's near unbreakable relationship with George Lucas' newer trio of poorly regarded Star Wars films. We've been burnt by these films enough times now to recognize their near universal disappointment. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hannibal Rising, Star Wars, The Thing, Dumb and Dumberer, The Hobbit, Oz the Great and Powerful… some of these films are better than others, but like most Hollywood prequels, they all force in unnecessary characters from and cute nods to the films we actually love to such an extent that we are never given a chance to fall in love with the present film on its own terms. These films hardly even have their own terms, except to be nostalgia-delivery systems for earlier, better films. Regardless of what the film asserts, Hannibal Lecter only wears that familiar face mask in Hannibal Rising because it's part of the character's iconography.
Not all prequels are awful, however. Some find success by underplaying their prequel status. Temple of Doom is a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that's more a trivial distinction that never really manifests itself in the actual narrative. The Fast & Furious franchise has had a lot of fun with its weird chronology, in which parts four, five and six are all prequels to part three. But it pulls this feat off in silence, boldly presenting its prequel status without comment. This ended up being a big plus for the series, as the strange chronology flagged potential viewers to how curiously strange the "dumb" fast-car movies had become while they weren't looking. In a similar fashion, some long-running series might have an entry that takes place far in the future, thus making any films to follow accidental prequels, such as with Godzilla's Destroy All Monsters or the Friday the 13th series' Jason X. And of course The Godfather Part II, widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, is at least partially a prequel.
But can a prequel that stands tall and proud as a prequel actually be a good film? And if so, how? What does a great prequel look like? Pixar's upcoming Monsters University provides us with an answer to all these questions. While still a part of Pixar's current fallow period which started with the good but unnecessary Toy Story 3, Monsters University may be a mid-level Pixar entry but it supplies an astounding prequel example.
How Monsters University manages to pull this off should be obvious but sadly eludes most prequel filmmakers. To put it simply, the film has a strong enough story and aesthetic execution to thoroughly entertain without any knowledge of the first film. Monsters University succeeds as a prequel because it would largely be the exact same film in a universe in which Monsters Inc. doesn't even exist.
There are a couple signs of "prequel-itis," particularly due to the inclusion of Steve Buscemi's villainous Randall Boggs. But even this works to the film's advantage as Randall's character supplies a contrast to Mike Wazowski that benefits this story (and gives the character a nice mini-arc of his own). Director Dan Scanlon, along with cowriters Robert L Baird and Dan Gerson, could have invented a brand new character for this purpose, but Randall's inclusion will actually benefit those who watch these films in chronological order. Other cameos (for the sake of spoilers, I'll refrain from listing them) do not fare so well. But they are minuscule enough distractions to an otherwise stand-alone entry as to be easily forgivable.
Seeing younger versions of familiar characters is not as thrilling as many filmmakers assume. It appeals only to a surface curiosity. The Mike Wazowski and James Sullivan we meet in Monsters University are quite different than the characters we know from Monsters Inc. The film smartly does not take our familiarity with them for granted but rather allows us to relearn to care for them in a different context. On top of that, the film introduces an onslaught of great new characters, particularly the crew of misfit fraternity brothers Wazowski and Sullivan end up having to contend with. Monsters University constantly invents outward where other prequels fill in already known blanks, often with already familiar elements.
In 10 years, viewers will be able to see Monsters University as part one of a two-part series. This should be the number-one goal to which any prequel aspires. Granted, the computer-animated Monsters University cheats a bit in this regard. For most prequels, such a goal is not possible thanks to the ravages of age upon its actors (see the curiously different-looking Orlando Bloom in the recently released trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). But this hardly seems like a priority, anyway, as many prequels (Star Wars and Prometheus, for instance) don't even try to re-create the same architectural and technological aesthetic of their previously established universes.
This success, I think, is indicative of Pixar's superior approach to storytelling in general. And while Monsters University fails to hit the studio's emotional highs in favor of goofiness and bright comedy, the film's cleverness and ability to justify its own existence does speak to the higher quality storytelling mark to which we hold Pixar in general. Despite its status as not only another cash-in release but a prequel, perhaps the worst form of cash-in available, Monsters University is a film to anticipate rather than lament.