Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2009

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
Columbia Pictures
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Screenplay: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, based on the book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett
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 "rat birds."

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 comedic non-sequiturs.

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

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