LOS ANGELES, June 18 (Reuters) - One-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski and his giant blue, furry friend James P. "Sully" Sullivan go back in time as "scaring" students in "Monsters University," as Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios pins its hopes for a blockbuster on the coming-of-age story.
"Monsters University," a prequel to 2001 animated film "Monsters, Inc.," will be released on Friday in U.S. theaters, and director Dan Scanlon told Reuters one of the main challenges was to keep the film fresh and surprising for audiences.
"You're dealing with the fact that everybody knows how the movie is going to end," Scanlon said about plotting Pixar's first prequel, particularly for a film that grossed more than $560 million at the worldwide box office.
A college setting seemed ideal for best friends Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, and Sully, voiced by John Goodman, Scanlon said, to "explore serious emotional relationship stuff" and "major self-discovery."
"It's a maturing process or learning who you are," Goodman added. "Everybody goes through it, whether you went to college or not."
"Monsters University" tells the story of how Mike and Sully first met in college as "scaring" majors, learning the prestigious art of scaring human beings in order to harness their screams, which power the city of Monstropolis.
Although Mike and Sully eventually become friends and co-workers at scaring factory Monsters, Inc., their friendship does not have the smoothest start, with Sully's "party-guy" popularity conflicting with the studious, ambitious Mike.
The film focuses on Mike, whose sole ambition from childhood is to become a "scarer" despite not being very intimidating, and at university, he struggles to find his place among his peers, finally fitting in with a fraternity of outcasts.
"Unfortunately, he lacks a certain undefinable quality to be scary. So now he has to find what it is that makes him special," said Scanlon.
"What we see as crushing failures in life hopefully lead us to new things - things we never thought possible."
"Monsters University" producer Kori Rae, who worked closely with Crystal and Goodman on the first film, said she noticed the veteran actors were much more comfortable in their monster skins, and have fun playing their characters as teenagers.
"They got to dig in and explore who these guys were back then," noted Rae.
Crystal, 65, and Goodman, 60, said they saw a lot of themselves in teenage Mike and Sully.
Crystal likened Mike's need to have someone to catch him when he flies off the handle to times when he himself needed "someone as grounded as John" when he went off script to improvise. He also empathized with Mike's ambition, comparing it to his own.
"Mike never stops working to get better and he doesn't let anything get in his way. He many not like how he stacks up with everybody else, but he'll work you in to the ground - and I've always had that kind of drive," the comedian said.
For Goodman, Sully's easy-going likeability was an instant draw.
"(Sully's) a guy who gets to do what he loves for a living. There ain't' enough of that to go around," Goodman said.
Both men are also open to reprising their roles for a third installment, should one ever come to pass. In fact, Crystal already has ideas.
"Monsters Assisted Living," he said, before altering his voice to channel an elderly Mike. "Do my ankles look swollen to you?"