SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- The young audience for Pixar's latest animated adventure is not, one fervently hopes, already familiar with Charlie Day's work.
The 37-year-old actor is best known for playing the dim-witted Charlie Kelly on one of TV's most delightfully depraved, hilariously offensive sitcoms, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Adult viewers will also recognize him from his role as the hapless hygienist being harassed by Jennifer Aniston's horny dentist in the raunchy comedy Horrible Bosses.
In Monsters University, the prequel to 2001's Monsters Inc., Day plays Art, a quadruple-jointed purple monster who is deeply weird (in a way that makes you suspect he might have another kind of joint stashed away somewhere). It's a goofy, off-the-wall role that will no doubt endear him to a whole new generation of fans.
"It's great. I can suck them into my world before I corrupt them later in their lives," Day, clad in a khaki jacket, ripped jeans and sneakers, says with a laugh. "It doesn't really matter to me whether the seven-year-olds are big fans of my work. I'm happy just to be working at all. But I do think it will be nice to have a movie that my (18-month-old) son can watch pretty soon."
The prequel takes the stars of Monsters Inc. -- little one-eyed green sphere Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and his best buddy, giant blue-furred champion scarer James P. "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman) -- back to their college days, when they met on the campus of Monsters University and became instant enemies.
Mike has wanted to be a scarer since grade school and throws himself into his studies, but he's got more smarts than scareability. Sully, meanwhile, is a natural from a long line of scarers and would rather party than hit the books. When they find themselves kicked out of the Scare School program by the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), the two adversaries have no choice but to hook up with a band of misfits in the Oozma Kappa fraternity in order to compete in the annual Scare Games to prove their mettle in a Revenge of the Nerds-style storyline.
The Oozma Kappas are a group of outcasts who tend toward the geeky, but Art is a bird (or something) of a different feather, an enigmatic dude with a knack for the non sequitur.
"He's more a drifter, I think. I'm not ever sure that he's a student at the college -- he may be crashing there," Day theorizes. "Nobody knows his story. I'm certain he's some sort of marsupial but I can't tell. We just know that he's a very happy-go-lucky guy; he's an optimist but he's got a mysterious past."
Art's brothers in the OK frat include characters voiced by Dave Foley and Sean Hayes, not to mention Crystal and Goodman, but, as with most animated movies, the actors were not in the same room together when recording their parts (Crystal claims not to have known Mirren was in the film until a month before its release). Not only was there no inter-actor riffing, Day says, he also didn't do any comedic ad-libbing in the studio.
"I was surprised by that, to be honest, because the movies have such a conversational tone that I thought we were going to be making things up as we went along, but they're so far down the road with the animation by the time you get there that they really have a small window for any variation on what they've set out to do.
"I wasn't there to rewrite anything, but to give them whatever quality I have of myself that fits whatever they had in their mind... my unique vocal stylings, which were not unique vocal stylings until I had a career," says Day, who possesses a distinctively high, scratchy voice.
Though they never met on set, Crystal and Day could have bonded over their similar backgrounds. Both went to college to play baseball and both found themselves better suited to artistic pursuits.
"I went to a small liberal arts school; I went there to play baseball," says Day, who has a degree in art history from Merrimack College in Massachusetts. "And then, not too unlike the character of Mike, realized I had some physical limitations and wasn't going to go any further. And then started to find myself a little bit, which was wonderful. I got more involved in the arts and became a better student when I learned to study things I enjoyed."
Crystal, who attended Huntington University in West Virginia on a baseball scholarship, had similar realization.
"(Playing ball) really was not as much of a possibility for me as much as being scary is for (Mike). And then when it doesn't happen, it's heartbreaking."
Crystal admits, however, that he always had a backup plan if baseball fell through.
"When I was in elementary school, five or six, I just knew, somehow, that entertaining was what I was going to do... I already had a tight 10 minutes."
You've come a long way... yecchh!
IN the 12 years since Monsters Inc., digital animation has come a long way. In that film, animators were limited to one furry monster -- Sully -- because of the great difficulties involved in animating individual hairs.
In Monsters University, not only are there many more creatures with pelts, but there are more creatures, period. Because of advances in animation controls, the MU campus is crawling -- and slithering and clicking and oozing -- with monsters.
"We had to have so many different monsters in the background of almost every shot," says director Dan Scanlon (Cars). "In the first film, we never could have done that. And they're not just monsters walking around on two legs -- they've gotta be slugs, and some have tentacles... it's very complex."
But for Billy Crystal, the emotional highlight of the film comes when there are just two monsters onscreen, his Mike and John Goodman's Sully. It's a scene that he and Goodman voiced while actually in the studio together, something the actor says was imperative.
"The scene at the lake, which is my favourite scene in the movie, is a very heartbreaking scene, and you're watching a hard drive, you know? But there they are, and they're very real and they're very sad. It's very emotional in the best way.
"They're together and it wouldn't have been as good if we done it on separate tracks on different days. We had to look into each other's eyes. I looked into John's eyes, but I'm seeing him covered with blue fur and he's seeing a little green guy...
"They created a great journey for Mike, you know, this kid who dreamed of being something and it doesn't happen for him and how does he respond to that. It makes him a real person...uh, monster."