According to contemporary cinematic convention, Pixar is the go-to studio for respectable English-speaking animation. Of course, it’s tentatively okay for us to admit liking an animation film from another studio, so long as we toss in the requisite qualifier: “It was good… for a non-Pixar movie.” In reality, this sort of backhanded compliment is a thinly disguised insult akin to “She looks great… for a 40-year old” or “He’s amazing in bed… for a Viagra addict.” At best, such comparisons are rather counterproductive. Yes, Pixar is the attractive 23-year old who can not only weave brilliant, uplifting stories but also look good while doing so in a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful manner, and it doesn’t need Viagra because a thousand helium balloons will do quite nicely, thank you very much. Over the past year though, two smaller animated features, Coraline and Igor, have both managed to deliver an excellent experience without photocopying the tried-and-true Pixar formula. Now, Sony Pictures’ Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs makes three.
This adaptation of Judi and Ron Barrett’s 1978 children’s book has been necessarily fleshed out quite a bit for the movie screen. The result is much more satisfying than expected, as Cloudy relishes its own absurdity while delivering vibrant visuals and offbeat humor with an exuberant abandon. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller get off to a self-effacing start with Cloudy’s opening inscription: “A film by… a lot of people.” Appropriately, we then meet Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a misfit and would-be inventor who earnestly wants to help make his hometown a better place to live. The story takes place in Swallow Falls, a community located on a remote island in the middle (under the “A”) of the Atlantic Ocean. The local economy, based solely upon sardine exports, has collapsed after the rest of the world figured out that sardines are, uh, entirely disgusting. Without any further means to support themselves, Swallow Falls citizens are now forced to eat sardines for every meal, which depresses the hell out of nearly everyone except for Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan), who operates a bait and tackle shop, speaks in fishing metaphors and whose eyes aren’t even visible for his monobrow. The only thing Tim wants is for his son to cool it with his disastrous inventions and work at the bait and tackle shop. Flint begrudgingly complies but, on the sly, persists with his latest invention, which shall generate food from water.
Naturally, things don’t stay quiet for long. Before Flint can test the food generator, it pretty much goes batshit crazy and destroys Mayor Shelbourne’s (Bruce “Hail to the King, Baby” Campbell) sardine-themed amusement park that’s earmarked to “save” the economy of the once bustling sardine producer. Unbeknownst to all, including Flynt, the water-to-food generator anchors itself within the rain clouds, and when the next storm brews, hamburgers begin to rain from the sky. Soon, the townspeople are feasting upon steaks and pancakes. Children are delighted at the mountains of ice cream and rainbows that end in a cascades of jellybeans. Tourism increases after the arrival of Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), an NYC weather girl intern whose first real assignment is to cover Swallow Falls during the weather upheaval. Otherwise, all goes well until the mayor turns into a symbol of conspicuous consumption, people start to get greedier by the meal, and progressively elaborate menu requests sends the machine into overdrive. The molecular structure of the generated food begins to mutate into the form of spaghetti twisters, meteor-sized meatballs, and, eventually, sentient food (think tie-fighting pizza slices) that, presumably, wants to consume people. Throughout all of this frenetic action, surprisingly, the film’s use of 3-D never appears gimmicky or obnoxious. Whereas lesser filmmakers would be tempted to toss leftovers into the audience, Lord and Miller launch them into the horizon, where they steadily fill a dam-enclosed landfill. As you can imagine, all of this soon gives way to clever parody of disaster flicks like Twister and Armageddon.
Cloudy, without delving into preachiness, also manages to teach kids a few valuable lessons about the wages of gluttony and the dangers of overindulgence. Furthermore, girls will appreciate that, midway through, Sam decides to stop hiding her smarts and looks just as beautiful (or even moreso) in geeky glasses and a ponytail than as a generic perky television weather girl. A lot of themes have been packed into this tamale, but Cloudy’s cast carries the load well, and their voice work here is rather amazing in that most of these names are instantly recognizable, but voices don’t jump out at you to the point of distraction. You know, unlike Meryl Streep, who, no matter how much she brings to the table, pretty much always sounds like Meryl Streep. Anna Faris seems to have a voice made for animation, and her Guatemalan cameraman, played by Benjamin Bratt, adds a wry counterbalance to Faris’ perkiness. Mr. T is pretty great in his first credited role since 2002 as the town police chief, and Neil Patrick Harris delivers laughs as Flint’s monkey assistant. Even Andy Samberg (in one of his rare tolerable moments) fares well as the local sardine can mascot, “Baby” Brent, who is sort of a hybrid between a former-child-star-on-the-skids and that one-girl-on-each-arm guy from David Lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose” video. So, take a bottle of anything and a glazed donut to go, and catch this little movie. It’s really quite tasty.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.