More Minions? Toon Studios Talk Sequel Strategies

Toon Be Continued: 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,' 'Despicable Me 2' (above), 'Monsters University' and 'Smurfs 2' extend hit franchises

Despicable Me 2

Of the 10 pics to have earned more than $500 million at the 2013 box office, three are animated features. Considering what big business toons represent today, it’s no surprise that the studios responsible have shifted into the sequels business. But revisiting popular animated characters — and keeping them fresh — can be a tricky balancing act.

“Audiences want the familiarity of the same characters, but at the same time, they don’t want just a repeat of the first film,” acknowledges Dan Scanlon, director of Pixar’s “Monsters University.” “And it’s really tough as those characters were specifically designed to tell one story, which has now been told. So you have to design a whole new story and journey, and also make sure that there’s a new emotional change. It can’t be the same as the first movie, and sequels often fall into that trap.”

To avoid that, the “Monsters” team decided to take the prequel route instead. “They’re just 18-year-olds now, and we’re all very different when we’re younger,” he says. The team also took risks. “Mike is less the easy comic relief, and more the sincere heart of the film,” says Scanlon. “So he’s more of a naive and idealistic kid.” Similarly, the lovable, sweet Sulley of the first film is now a cocky know-it-all. It helped that actor John Goodman, who voices Sulley, “really related to that teenager attitude,” Scanlon explains. “He says he was that kid at that age, and it’s a characteristic we can all recognize.”

For Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron, boosted from the story department to directors of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” the big challenge was “not to repeat ourselves in both the types of jokes and the character stories,” Pearn says. Making things slightly easier, however, the team didn’t have to sell the concept this time out. “The studio had a lot of reservations about ‘Cloudy 1,’ as it was so ‘Muppetty’ and cartoony with this whole crazy world,” he recalls. “We spent one year out of the four-year process just trying to convince them it would work.”

The team also decided to stray from the original’s mock disaster-movie format. “This time we went for the monster movie, which gave us all this new energy, and took the sentient food idea — which made the least sense in the first film — and ran with it,” explains Pearn. The result? A quasi-“Jurassic Park” filled with “foodimals.” “We also took inventor Flint Lockwood, who emotionally seemed about 14 at the end of ‘Cloudy 1,’ and sent him into high school,” Pearn adds. “That gave us a whole set of new experiences and stories for him.”

While the creative force behind the “Ice Age” films saw that franchise’s road trip-style sequel as “essentially a straight line” in terms of storytelling, he faced “the exact opposite experience” in conceiving “Despicable Me 2”: “It was almost as if the story hadn’t finished being told,” says producer Chris Meledandri, who once again sees the villainous antihero Gru as the center of the movie. “The story became Gru’s emotional quest to continue to heal and complete himself, whereas in the first movie he was dealing with the experience of love for the first time with these three little daughters. The question of romantic love was just staring us right in the face, and we knew that he had been wounded by bad parenting and was terrified of romantic love. From that point forward, the story actually started to tell itself and everything else formed around that.”

Adds Meledandri: “I think the big difference here is that it was an organic process of storytelling rooted in character. The discipline that everyone brought to the second one was the knowledge that there were core elements of the story that everybody loved (think Minions — and more Minions). But there was a tremendous amount of discipline to make sure that we were continually pushing into new terrain and that meant new situations, new characters, new vulnerabilities for those characters, new comedic scenes.”

For “The Smurfs 2,” returning director Raja Gosnell largely stuck to the same formula as the original film: a kid-friendly mix of human slapstick and CG Smurfs. But this time around, the filmmakers moved the action to Paris, and added some fresh blood to the mix. Christina Ricci, Brendan Gleeson and J.B. Smoove joined regular cast members Neil Patrick Harris, Katy Perry and Hank Azaria, while the exotic backdrop opened the door for Britney Spears to contribute her original Smurf song “Ooh La La.” The resulting global box office (international tellingly far outstripped domestic) has already powered up a third installment, due to be released in summer 2015.

“In a sequel, you have to pick up the original story, create a new problem, and take your characters on a new journey,” Pearn says. He admits that they struggled with some elements, including juggling many new characters, “right till the end.”

For Pixar’s Scanlon, keeping sequels fresh means “nothing’s sacred.” He says, “That’s something we do a lot. We’ll break the characters if it means telling the right story.”

Scanlon cites Mike’s character as the key to the “Monsters” prequel: “It’s a story you don’t see very often, especially in family films, about a character who works very hard but still doesn’t attain his dream. That’s something most people can relate to. That tension was the inspiration for the whole prequel idea.”