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Book Review: 'The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2'

A bold and colorful visual feast of artwork that will pique your epicuriosity.

The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, by Tracey Miller-Zarneke.  Foreword by Bob Osher.

Petaluma, CA, Cameron + Company, September 2013, hardcover $39.95 (143 [+ 1] pages).

Coffee-table art books on the latest big-budget animated theatrical features have become commonplace in recent years.  The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is one of the most recent of these – but with a slight difference.  Is this a wonderful memento for those who liked the movie?  Yes! … but …

Firstly, it is about a CGI animated feature that does not strive for the “realistic” look of a Pixar, a DreamWorks, a Blue Sky, or most other studios’ CGI animation.  It has a very loose, rubbery look.  Characters flail their arms in an impossibly exaggerated, “cartoony” manner.  Sony Pictures Animation is not alone in this, but it is more exaggerated here.  It is rare and refreshing to see this look in an “art of” book.  Judging by most of the coffee-table art books, you would think that the realistic look is the only one in CGI animation.

Secondly, it is in a sense a sequel, just as the movie is a sequel to Sony Pictures Animation’s 2009 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  The Art and Making of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) was also written by Tracey Miller-Zarnecke.  As a sequel, both the movie and its companion art book assume that the reader is familiar with the previous work.  Most The Art of … books devote several pages to the main characters and their art design, including preliminary designs before each character was finalized.  In The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, the returning members of the main cast are given just two pages each, showing their final, familiar looks.  It is the new, supporting characters who are given several pages each, with a wealth of preliminary design rough sketches.  This is understandable, but it makes The Art of Cloudy … 2 topheavy with the emphasis on the new, secondary characters.

Thirdly, most of the profuse illustrations are finished art, showcasing the cast and the settings in their final form, rather than the in-production sketches and rough art of most other CGI “art of” books.  This is both good and bad.  It lacks the in-production visual information of most other CGI art books, but for those who prefer the look of the finished movie, it cannot be beat.

The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is is a beautiful art book; a hardcover with a gatefold front cover showing Flint Lockwood and his friends discovering the food jungle that Swallow Falls has become. The book is a special treasure trove for those who liked the foodimals, many of which flashed by almost too fast to see in the movie.  Here, each of them gets a closeup, and is named:  Barry the Strawberry (the only foodimal given a personal name), the Pickles, the Cheespider, the Tacodile, the Watermelophant, the Shrimpanzees, the Hippotatomus, the Meatbalrus, the Bananostrich, the Mosquitoast, the Cucumbirdy, the Susheep, the Apple Pie-thon, the Octopudding, and around two dozen others.  You can tell that the animators had fun making foodimals up.  Not only were these drawn or painted, many are photographs of models made of food.  (Talk about “looking good enough to eat”!)  There are also color spreads of the geography of the food jungle:  the coconut milk river, the sardine circle, the pickle village (“Why is the pickle village made of cheese?  Because cheese is fun and can pair nicely with pickles on a charcuterie platter.” – Pete Oswald, Visual Development Artist; p. 95), the peppermint cloud, the ice-cream glacier, and more.  Each illustration is identified by its artist, as is usual with these art books.

The book acknowledges several details that an expert would recognize, but are helpful for the layman.  The semi-abstract art style is based on that of Czech émigré children’s book artist Miroslav Šašek (1916-1980).  Two major influences from the animation field were character designer Mary Blair (1911-1978) and background designer Maurice Noble (1911-2001).  All three liked bright colors, which the movie emphasizes.  “Whereas the first Cloudy film paid homage to disaster films such as Earthquake (1974) and Armageddon (1998), the sequel takes its audience into a mysterious world of unfamiliar monsters and incredible environments.” (p. 11)  Cloudy … 2 is inspired more by The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) and Jurassic Park (1993).  The viewer might think that the fact that the main characters are from “Cloudy … 1” would save considerable design work, but “The character models from the first film were essentially frozen in software that dated back to 2008 – eons in technological history.  ‘We basically had to rebuild a machine from the past, isolate the same operating system to get the character files back online, then transfer what we could into our new system,’ explains visual effects supervisor Pete Travers.” (p. 17)  For the viewer who cares about names, the full names of all of the main characters are given (“Policeman Earl” is Earl Devereaux) … well, not Manny, and each of Live Corp.’s divisions and squads (the Thinkquanauts and the Sentinels of Safety) are profiled.  There is even a tipped-in booklet of “Scratch-And-Sniff Stickers” that will give you the aroma of the key foodimals.

One problem that was probably unavoidable is that this book’s coverage of the entire movie gives away who the surprise villain is.  Problems that could have been avoided are the profusion of quotes from “Bob Osher, President of Sony Pictures Digital Productions”.  Was it necessary to give his full title each time?  The villain “is the perfect caricature of a charismatic, adventurous, worldly, genius CEO holding court at the top of a contemporary techno-company.” (p. 34)  The book points out at length what a villain the genius CEO is.  A generic CEO?  Many reviewers of the movie said that they were strongly led to think of one CEO in particular.  There may be too many back-patting descriptions of production problems that the design team brilliantly overcame.  “The future is definitely bright at our studio, and it starts with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.  I can’t wait for you to join these magical characters on this fantastic journey.”  Bob Osher, p. 9)  Some of the statements are misleading.  “We didn’t want food creatures to be scary; we wanted the audience to find them lovable and to want to protect them.” – Justin K. Thompson, Production Designer; p. 87.  But scary is exactly what the Tacodile and other foodimals (except Barry the Strawberry) are supposed to be, until almost to the climax when Flint discovers that they are really friendly once they get past being scared themselves.  Since Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a sequel with a completely original story, there was no need to mention the children’s picture book on which the first movie was based (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett; 1978); but it would have been nice.  (Did you know that the Barretts’ picture book has its own sequel, Pickles to Pittsburgh (2000), that is nothing like Cloudy … 2?)        

To sum up, The Art of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is not a perfect book, especially if you are looking for production details on how the feature was made.  But if you are looking for just a sumptuous visual feast of all of the characters, the names of each, and a full catalogue of over two dozen of the major foodimals, look no further.  This is it.

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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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