Book Review: 'The Art of Monsters University'

Fred Patten reviews the comprehensive coffee table book showcasing the beautiful artwork from Pixar’s Monsters University.

All images from The Art of Monsters University, by Karen Paik provided courtesy of the publisher, Chronicle Books.

The Art of Monsters University, by Karen Paik.  Preface by John Lasseter and Pete Docter.  Foreword by Dan Scanlon.

San Francisco, CA, Chronicle Books, June 2013, hardcover $40.00 (167 [+ 1] pages).

This coffee-table collection of the concept art of Pixar’s latest, Monsters University, differs slightly from most of the other coffee-table books about one animated CGI feature or another.  Since the movie is a “prequel” to Pixar’s 2001 Monsters, Inc., which “everybody” has seen and loved, the book assumes that the reader is already familiar with Mike and Sulley, the two main characters.  Therefore the emphasis in The Art of Monsters University ison the new supporting characters, and on the MU campus.

There is certainly enough here to fill a book!  As has become traditional for these art books, there is not a story synopsis per se of the featured movie, but the reader gets the basic plot as the book goes along.  There is a brief (to page 15) synopsis of Monsters, Inc. and a comparison of Mike and Sulley then and now (or, since this is a prequel, should it be now and then?).  The rest of the book is about the new movie.  It starts with another brief picture of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan, and their nemesis Randall, as college students; younger and thinner, Mike with retainers still on his teeth, Randal as a young geek who cheats on tests but is not yet the scheming, cynical villain that he has become in Monsters, Inc.  Then the book blossoms forth to show all of the new characters; the dean and professors, the other students including the fraternity and sorority lineups, and incidental adults like the MU librarian and Mrs. Squibbles, the dorm mother.  There are so many new characters that the book does not have room to show the preliminary character designs of all of them, but the important new characters are covered thoroughly.

Image credit: Dice Tsutsumi, digital, 2011.

The Pixar team designed a large and detailed monster college campus, with both old (from its seal, Monsters University goes back to 1313) and new buildings.  This is comprehensive and very realistic.  Some of the buildings and landscapes remind me of my college days at UCLA.

As is usual for these art books, each sketch, finished drawing, and maquette is identified to the artist who created it:  Jason Deamer, Dice Tsutsumi, Shelly Wan, Ricky Nierva, Albert Lozano, Daniel López Muñoz, Greg Dykstra, Dan Scanlon, Daniela Strijleva, Michael Honsel, Chris Sasaki, Robert Kondo, Adrian Molina, Shion Takeuchi, Manny Hernandez, Octavio Rodriguez, and many more.  There are quite a few storyboard sequences.  The visuals in this book show more of a sense of humor than usual: there are photographs of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Dan Scanlon when they were college students; a drawing of Sulley attributed to Olivia Nierva, who I would guess to be about four years old; and a cartoon by Jason Deamer showing why Mike does not look good with any clothes on him.

Image credit: Dice Tsutsumi (painting) Nelson Bohol (design) digital, 2011.

This leads to the movie’s staff’s comments.  “It’s not an accident that Oozma Kappa is green.  How do you put clothes on Mike?  He has no real body.  You can put a hat on him, and wrist stuff or leggings, but he can’t wear a jacket.” – Jason Deamer, characters art director.  “I remember being asked, How do you make an eyeball look eighteen years old?  It’s a really good question, but we also see Mike as a little kid.  So what does an eyeball look like at eighteen, and what does an eyeball look like at six?” – Ricky Nierva, production designer.  “I got to explore a wide range of personalities for Randall, from nice guy to jerk.  I did some early explorations of the characters being competitive in school.  For instance, Mike, being a know-it-all, would raise his hand, but Randall would one-up him all the time; because Randy’s got more hands, he would put up three hands to Mike’s one.  When Randall became more of a nerdy nice guy, I put glasses on him, to make his eyes bigger.  When he takes the glasses off, he starts squinting – which is the look we recognize from the first film.” –Albert Lozano, sketch artist.  “Structurally, the Oozma Kappas [four fraternity brothers] kind of step in for Boo as the third party that eventually heals Mike and Sulley.  Without the Oozma Kappas, they wouldn’t have got stuck together, they wouldn’t have had this whole journey together.  And it’s only in caring for them that both Mike and Sulley eventually come to care for themselves and each other.” –Pete Docter, executive producer.

The Art of Monsters University is written by Karen Paik, a writer in the Pixar story development department who has worked on Ratatouille, Up, and the current Monsters University.  She also wrote The Art of Ratatouille.  The foreword is by Dan Scanlon, the director of Monsters University.  As usual, this is one of Chronicle Books’ lavish art books that tells all about the movie that it covers; a beautiful behind-the-scenes souvenir for the fans of Monsters University.

Image credit: Ricky Nierva, digital, 2009.

Image credit: Ricky Nierva, digital, 2009.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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