At The Picture Show
Raining catsup and hot dogs
'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' offers a bright forecast for future animated fare
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Screenplay: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and
Starring: The voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Mr. T, Bruce
Campbell, Andy Samberg and Bobb'e J. Thompson
Rated PG / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Opened September 18, 2009
(out of four)
During an era in which an animation studio is making some of the world's best art
films, there is a window of opportunity for animated films to let loose and shake
off a bit of their stigma.
Thing is, that doesn't necessarily mean people have to take advantage of it. And in
an unfortunate majority of cases, they don't. They're content to appeal almost
exclusively to a younger demographic - and with the box-office returns of most
cartoon features these days, you can hardly blame them.
But it's always refreshing to see a film that
doesn't simply take its audience for granted. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
is one such example. Based on a children's book from the late 1970s, the film has
carved out an identity of its own, distinct from the source material.
Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have created a story and characters that
seem culled equally from Mother Goose and Looney Tunes. The film focuses on
the awesomely named amateur scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), who seems
to be the only resident of his little island town of Swallow Falls to have any
ambition beyond . . . well, doing what everybody else in town does - start up a
sardine business. Swallow Falls is world renowned for its sardines, but that's
literally the only thing it has going for it.
Flint, on the other hand, has always had dreams of inventing something so great, so
magical, that the whole town - or world, even - would love him for it. He spends
virtually all his time in an immaculately constructed (kudos to the production
designers) secret laboratory.
He's been trying invention after invention since he was a kid, but they've all gone
bust. The spray-on shoes. The monkey voice translator. The genetically mutated
But finally, after years of futility, his latest and
greatest idea o' wonder . . . works.
Accidentally, of course.
The contraption he's built this time is a machine that will transform water
molecules into food. And not just any food - any kind of food you could ask for.
But when Flint first tests it out, it's another in a long line of disasters. It's only
when the machine flies up into the clouds that it finally works. And the moribund
town of Swallow Falls, whose residents have been eating the same thing three
meals a day for as long as they can remember, is suddenly fed a three-times-daily
feast fit for a kingdom.
Flint's wildest dreams of adoration and popularity come true, of course - but the
other characters in his life make sure to complicate manners. The cute weather
girl, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), who comes to town just before it starts raining
cheeseburgers. Flint's dad (James Caan), a common fisherman who owns a
sardine bait shop and doesn't have much use for the town's new way of life. Or
the gluttonous, opportunistic mayor (Bruce Campbell) who tries to bleed Flint's
invention for every buck he can get his fat little fingers on.
I heard an interview with Hader recently in which he talked about the atmosphere
on the set of Meatballs, saying how the filmmakers tried to foster an atmosphere of
creativity and improvisation. That seems to be evident in the finished product,
which is lifted by a glut of inspired voice performances and which has countless
sight gags that not only work once, but often pay off with bigger laughs later on.
There are certain elements - for instance, the
Looney Tunes/action figure-like cop (voiced by Mr. T), the spaghetti twister, the
montage of gaping mouths before a cataclysmic event - that suggest an uncommon
level of looseness and freedom within the production. The film is made of
countless such moments, both weaved into the plot and existing on their own as
That's not to say the film doesn't show its structural hand - it does. There are
times when it finds itself slogging through formula simply for the sake of doing so.
Consider the budding romance between Flint and Sam, for instance. There's one
great sequence where they swim, eat and get to know each other in a custom-made
Jell-O castle. But most of the rest of the relationship feels like it's dictated by
necessity rather than artistic motivation.
But the bulk of the film is so charming, and funny, that it's kind of easy to forgive
its shortcomings. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs may not be Pixar-level, but
if more animated films followed its lead, that would be a pretty good thing.
Read more by Chris Bellamy