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How Prequels Can Actually Work

March 11, 2013

By John C.

Glinda PosterPrequels can be a precarious thing when it comes to pleasing the fans of a beloved film, but nostalgia is an even more powerful feeling.  These two things work together beautifully in Oz The Great and Powerful, an incredibly entertaining blockbuster that plays as both a precursor and loving homage to the 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz.

As Hollywood continues to look for ways to capitalize on the promise of a franchise, and only certain films are fit for a follow up, prequels are often seen as a natural way to continue a story that has already resolved itself.  A good example of this is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an adaptation that plays as a fantastic standalone adventure, but also as the first of three prequels to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

With Oz The Great and Powerful, it was a gamble that paid off in a big way for Disney, as the film picked up $80.3 million at the box office over the weekend.  But in many ways it seems hard to make a prequel that will please fans, as the mixed reviews of this return trip to Oz seemed to prove.

I think it is often because there is a lot of pressure to get things right when revisiting a world that takes place before our preconceived knowledge of where the story ultimately ends up.  The superhero origin story X-Men: First Class is a good example of a prequel that works alongside the preexisting series of comic book films, while also playing as the sort of reboot that we often hear about.  But a reboot is meant to tell a different version of a story that has already been told, where as a prequel provides a secondary story that leads either directly or indirectly into another film.

Such is the case with Oz The Great and Powerful, the backstory of magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and how he came to be the infamous Wizard of Oz who is seen in the eponymous 1939 classic.  A few years ago in 2011, James Franco also starred in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly smart and exhilarating prequel to the somewhat dated 1968 science fiction film.  I felt the same things leaving that screening as I did walking out of Oz The Great and Powerful, completely blown away by a film that surpassed my reasonably levelled expectations, as it believably set up the story of things to come in an already developed world.

Disney also obviously hopes to score with Monsters University, the latest from Pixar opening on June 21st, another prequel to a beloved film taking place in a well established world.  For myself and many other fans, the original Monsters Inc. is the perfect example of a film that resolves itself beautifully, with a bittersweet final scene that wraps up the story in a way that leaves us emotionally satisfied.  But I still hold out hope for Monsters University, because it seems like the perfect way to revisit these beloved and incredibly entertaining characters, without changing the way that the original film wrapped itself up.

The thing about Monsters University is that it taps into the sweet spot of having an audience that grew up on the first film twelve years ago, and is now the right age to be thinking about or actually attending college.  The fake educational spots that have been playing before all movies are brilliant parts of an ingenious viral marketing campaign that is tapping into the teenage and young adult demographic, the audience that usually makes up the biggest numbers on opening weekend.  By turns it will also introduce a new generation of fans to the original film, something that every prequel will hopefully do.

A prequel to a film heavy on special effects can often be tricky to pull off, because the expected standards of what is possible to create are always changing.  This is especially true considering the jump from practical to digital effects that happened throughout the 74 years between The Wizard of Oz and Oz The Great and Powerful.  But director Sam Raimi found a way to create a look that beautifully paid homage to the original film, while also using the updates in technical wizardry that we have gotten over the years as a way to pay tribute to the magic of filmmaking as a whole.

These challenges can be true of any prequel, because they are almost always created some years after the initial story is told, even though they are taking place on an earlier timeline.  The character development can’t go past the level that the story is at when the initial movie begins, which can sometimes feel like working backwards from the original film.  Although I have always enjoyed the infamous prequel trilogy, many Star Wars fans still count The Phantom Menace as a disappointment, partly because the look and feel of that world had obviously changed between 1977 and 1999.

But there are also plenty of worthy examples to prove that this isn’t always the case.  Let’s not forget some of the other prequels that have worked over the years, including Sergio Leone’s 1966 classic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, which is technically a precursor to the first two films in the trilogy.  Francis Ford Coppola did something truly special with The Godfather: Part II in 1974, crafting a masterful work that plays as both a prequel and sequel to the iconic original.

Although not every prequel can live up to the original film, if done right like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Oz The Great and Powerful, then they can provide a good way to revisit a world without necessarily changing the outcome of the initial story.  Now here’s hoping that we will be able to say the same things about Monsters University come June 21st.

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