Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie review: special sauce

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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 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 buoyant 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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Thu, Sep 17, 2009 3:07pm

I have a suspicion my vocal pre-film bias may have had some margin of influence on this review. Probably rent this eventually for the kid.

My favorite scene of the book was the cream cheese and jelly sandwich snowdrifts. Picked it up new for less than $4 at the local Scholastic warehouse sale.

Frank from UF
Thu, Sep 17, 2009 7:45pm

And they wonder why childhood obesity is a nationwide epidemic…

Accounting Ninja
Accounting Ninja
Thu, Sep 17, 2009 8:32pm

Food itself isn’t the culprit. It’s that we don’t get enough exercise and eat entirely TOO MUCH food. No one really eats real portion sizes of anything; your average person will eat 2 to 3x more per sitting, just because most people have no idea what a portion size looks like. It adds up.

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 4:09am

Another, related, factor is the speed at which you eat. It takes time for the system to report “I’m full”, so if you’re eating fast, on the run, you can shovel in 2 or 3 x the correct quantity before the body has a chance to report back. This may be the secret of the French Paradox: the two-hour lunch :-)

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 2:22pm

“And they wonder why childhood obesity is a nationwide epidemic…”

because of cartoon/CGI food?

Victor Plenty
Victor Plenty
Fri, Sep 18, 2009 5:09pm

No cultural artifact, not even one as compelling as lovingly rendered CGI food, and not even one as compelling as this, can explain why the United States currently has an epidemic of obese 6 month old babies.

But this can.

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 7:05pm

While I agree with what other people have said about our nation’s health problems, I have a little something to add.

My parents grew up in blue collar families and became white collar workers. They kept eating like blue collar families, but instead of physical work they drove to work, sat around a lot, drove home, sat down to supper, then sat down to watch TV. And even after they retired, they’re still in the habit of a small lunch and a big supper, when it should be the reverse.

Our whole cultural matrix assumes we’re still farmers and factory workers. Plus fast food industry, school cuts meaning less healthy school food, and cars, cars, cars.

Alan Vinart
Wed, Sep 23, 2009 2:00am

totally looking forward to seeing this; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has to be the best children’s books of all time

Danny B
Danny B
Fri, Sep 25, 2009 11:59am

Bronxbee…….You’re argument is WAY OFF concerning this movie. It has a GREAT number of family centered messages intertwined within the film. From the affection and involvment of fathers in their childrens lives to showing the results of overeating, this movie is great for kids. It shows how junk food can be good, but if eaten beyond moderation it can cause serious harm (ie. the crazy fat mayor, and the child with the tummy ache from eating too many sweets). I HIGHLY encourage people to see this movie, I actually want to go see it again, I am 24 and remember reading the book as a child. It’s much different as the reviewer stated, but you really won’t get up in arms about it. The only point in the movie that I disaproved of was toward the begining when the mayor said “hell hole”. Not really necessary at all, but the other 99.9% of the movie was GREAT!