Brandon's Word: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a Feast
by Brandon Lee Tenney
September 18, 2009
Six years ago, co-directors Philip Lord and Chris Miller started writing the animated adaptation of Judi and Ron Barrett's classic children's story Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Three and a half years ago, Lord and Miller and, by their account, around five hundred others began bringing that script to life. Well, come September 18th, the story of a young inventor who turns water into food hits theaters everywhere. And, my word, what a smorgasbord of delicacies this animated film is!
The Barretts' book remains one of my most fond memories. Its spine cracked so that each page was able to lay flat without assistance, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs never strayed very far from my bedside table -- right along side Stellaluna and Where the Wild Things Are. Like most great children's stories, the story itself is unsurprisingly shallow. But within those pages was a world where food, any type of food, any dessert, any entree, any gastronomic creation could rain from the sky. Within those pages was the seed out of which countless hours of imagination grew. But when the food grew too large, the consequences of such a delicious disaster became known, what then?
Well, from that same seed grew Phil Lord's and Chris Miller's stunning adaptation. A story wholly dedicated to its predecessor, but aware and proud that it's different -- unlike the film's main character, whose pursuit of world-wide notoriety blinds him of what's most important. And it is -- different. Even weird at times. The film's humor is unto itself -- preferring a style of blatantly stating the obvious and continually prodding the joke at play. It steers close to the edge of obtuse without ever fully losing itself completely. And it all just works. Of course, these moments will pass clean over the younger crowd's heads (as will most of the references, but we'll get to those later), but they'll never be lost or confused. Where as kids will see a very hilarious ice cream snowball fight, I just so happened to be taken aback by the faux assassination-like violence being displayed via ice cream balls straight to the head. Weird, but hilarious all the same. Above all, this is a still a story for children. For all the smiles I saw on kids' faces, you'd think The Joker had contaminated the theatre's air supply with an aerosolized Joker venom.
Though, as this is ultimately a film for the youngins, the story is what you might expect. The underdog, Flint Lockwood, voiced superbly by the hilarious Bill Hader, must realize he's had what it takes to be great inside himself all along and that maybe what he really wanted isn't exactly what he really needed. There's your standard love interest, Anna Faris lending her voice to Sam Sparks, an aspiring network weather girl who's real passion is that of the very science behind what she's reporting. And then there's the classic, but always heart-whelming father-son story at the film's core. But it's a testament to the film's sense of self that its creators are absolutely unapologetic in their admission that these expectations are, well, to be expected. They know that you know. But it's the ride that's the real treat.
And it is fun. Every set up, no matter how small, has its corresponding pay off. Every joke is rich with heart and real purpose. Especially those jokes that seem to lack purpose at all. Whether it be Flint Lockwood's outrageous proclivity to provide his own sound effects and narration to everything around him, or the Mr. T-voiced Officer Earl Devereaux's insistence on calling everyone by their full name and expressing his love for his son incessantly throughout the film. There's subtext behind it all. Lockwood's dreams of grandeur, living outside himself. Devereaux's big heart always on his sleeve as a foil to Lockwood's own father, voiced by James Caan doing his best Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force impression -- and bringing a tear to my eye whilst doing so. And while it may be a simple story on the surface, it's more than substantial underneath. This is a film one should be proud to see and even more proud to take a child to see. A strong female character who finds that embracing her brains is just as important, more so even, as embracing her looks. A story just barely brushing social commentary on America's problem with excess. A story of embracing one's talents wholeheartedly, but for the right reasons, for one's self. And a celebration of nerds everywhere.
But while you'll find plenty of heart, the real marrow inside its bones is the film's references. For film fans, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a potluck of callbacks. From Aliens to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Twilight Zone to Tron to Star Wars to Indiana Jones, the references per minute are off the charts. This alone guarantees that upon its second, even third watch there will be plenty to scavenge.
Though, if you are going to see it only once (and once is simply a must), the way to see it is in IMAX 3-D. If you've read anything that I've written in the past months, you'll have noticed that my feelings on the use of 3-D have been sinking deeper and deeper into rage. It's a gimmick through and through. And with movies costing upwards of $12 out here in Los Angeles already, the extra cost to see a movie in 3-D, have the screen quasi-blurry and not quite as brilliant as it could be just doesn't sit well with me. But, as I'm always willing to do when it's called for, I'm prepared to eat a bit of crow. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the best 3-D film experience I've had yet. The depth added to each frame is magnificent, the colors just as stunning, the focus just as sharp. It's worth the extra three or four bucks. I can't imagine not seeing it as it was originally intended -- and, perhaps, there in lies the crucial element.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was, from the start, always intended to be in 3-D. And that intent shines brilliantly through. The hundreds upon hundreds of animators truly captured the essence of what could legitimately be the future of, well, at least animated films. And while I can't imagine not seeing this film in 3-D, I'm sure the quirky, perfectly stylized animation would look just as good when projected in those good ol' two standard dimensions. It's as beautiful looking as it is sounding. The animation just as expressive as the dialog warrants, as this ensemble of voice talents require. Along with the aforementioned Bill Hader, Anna Faris, and Mr. T (whose character sports a perfectly ironic hairdo), the film utilizes the one and only Bruce Campbell along with Andy Samberg, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Will Forte, and even a spectacular six-or-so word performance of sublime proportions from Neil Patrick Harris as the monkey Steve.
To close, I'd like to draw attention to the fact that, yes, this is an overwhelmingly positive review. But the film's flaws are few and very far between. It accomplishes its goal of appealing to children first and foremost while still providing enough adult-aimed fun and weight to a morally sound, lovingly honest story. And for that, well, you better believe that that kind of success should be rewarded with giant ice cream scoops of praise. Philip Lord and Chris Miller knew exactly what they were doing. And it shows. It succeeds. Is it better than Monsters vs. Aliens? Yes, for sure. Is it better than Pixar's Up? At times, yes. At times, no. The stories alone lend themselves poorly to comparison. But I will say that it's certainly the most fun I've had at the theatre since Star Trek. The most laughs since I Love You Man. Maybe even more so on both accounts.
So if you're going to see any disaster movie this year, forget 2012 and Roland Emmerich, make it Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. If you're going to see any father-son story of redemption and inner strength, forget The Road, make it Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. And if you're only going to see one movie in 3-D, forget that Avatar thing, make it Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. You'll be full for hours afterward. That, I guarantee.