Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (review)

Special Sauce

If you’re worried because the highly stylized animation of the new big-screen 3D adaptation of the beloved children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs doesn’t look much like the lovely pencil sketches Ron Barrett created for Judi Barrett’s gentle prose in their 1978 book… Well, you’re not wrong: the movie, written and directed by feature newcomers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, looks very different. And in some ways, it feels very different, too: there’s a lot more story required for a 90-minute film than a kiddie picture book demands.

But it feels just the same in the all the important ways, though I say that as someone who had never even heard of the book [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] before the movie entered my radar, and who only read it recently, after I’d seen the film and, obviously, as an adult. An adult who loves fantasy and loves meatballs, but still: books that enter your imagination as a child develop their own patina over the years in your mind that simply does not happen in the same way if you were to read that same book for the first time after your brain had settled into grownupness. Still, even I can see that some of the most ingenious imagery of the book — the elementary school covered in a giant pancake, the Fortress of Solitude of Jell-O — has been lovingly transferred to the film in a way that honors the book while also making what sense giant pancakes and Fortresses of Solitude of Jell-O can.

So keep that in mind when I say that Lord and Miller treat the charming nonsense of food falling from the sky like weather with exactly the sort of bouyant nimbleness it deserves. (Because I don’t have a history with the book, and maybe my experience of the film won’t apply to those who do.) They’ve expanded on the notion of a town called Chewandswallow where there are no supermarkets and the restaurants have no roofs by bringing in the enchantingly goofy — and only a little mad — scientist Flint Lockwood (the voice of Bill Hader: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Year One), whose inventions always go more than a little awry. There was no reason for the food falling from the sky in Barrett and Barrett’s book: here, it’s all Flint’s doing, and though it wasn’t part of his plan that the food actually fall, that aspect turns out to be a happy accident… happy at first, that is, because it puts the town on the tourist map, which brings in people like weather girl Sam Sparks (the voice of Anna Faris: Observe and Report, The House Bunny). But as with all of Flint’s inventions, this one seems to have a mind of its own…

There was tender wit in the book; the wit here is sharp and wicked clever, far more so than we expect even from today’s animated children’s movies that often end up appealing even more to adults. Lord and Miller dish up lashings of cunning wordplay that whips by so fast you wish for seconds. And they added some prickly social commentary as well — without, wondrously, weighing the movie down — mini cautionary tales about lack of temperance (as in the town’s mayor, voiced by the always fantastic Bruce Campbell [Spider-Man 3, The Ant Bully], who gorges himself into a cartoon Mr. Creosote on all the free delicious food) and the perils of attempting to be something other than you are (as Sam tries to hide her essential, adorable smart-girl nerdhood in favor of weather-girl Barbie-ness).

There’s real magic is in the film’s animation, too: it’s a bit Rankin & Bass, a bit Atari videogames — call it 80s Tron chic, all 64-bit graphics on Flint’s computers and low-tech expressions of Flint’s geeky imagination. It isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before on film, bursting with personality and style all its own. And the 3D feels appropriate, too: neither slapped on as an afterthought as a way to jack up the price of a ticket nor so, er, cheesily deployed that it becomes distracting and annoying.

Wild and subversive and endless fun to look at, this is as good as animated movies get. And even better than adaptations of books generally get. Mangia.

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