Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)


It’s safe to say that any imaginative soul will welcome the prospect of tasty food descending from the heavens. It’s a great idea. Not only does this cut down or entirely eliminate precious minutes in the kitchen, but it also benefits the lazy and profligate types who eat out all the time. Instead of driving to some restaurant, you could merely stick your hands out a window and await immediate results. You wouldn’t even need a microwave. Then again, if the food isn’t prepared to your liking, you’re not exactly in the position of returning it to the kitchen. Getting the ideal meal is more akin to scratching off a lottery ticket with a nickel. Maybe you’ll win. Maybe you won’t. But with so many free-falling viands, you have a pretty good law of averages on your hand. But what of quality? The food may come from the atmosphere, but if a chicken bursts through your roof during a candlelight dinner, chances are that the mood will be killed. These are gustatory dilemmas that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on Judi Barrett’s book, is remiss to investigate. But then I was probably the only guy in the audience looking for philosophical arguments within a mainstream family film. I am sorry. But if you give me food fused with weather, you’re going to get my brain going.

These perfect food storms come from a whiny scientific punk named Flint Lockwood, who has somehow built a giant hidden laboratory without his father knowing and has a somewhat annoying tendency to speak in gerunds when building something. (The lab is accessible through an elevator hidden in a portable toilet.) Flint, voiced by Saturday Night Live regular Bill Hader, has come up with several rum inventions, including spray-on shoes, remote control televisions, monkey translators, and electric cars. But he now has an invention that can turn water into food. (Why he hasn’t considered turning his talents to the far more lucrative sideline of alchemy is a question this film never answers.) His scientific endeavors are misunderstood by his father (voiced by James Caan and largely hidden behind a unibrow and a moustache), a sardine shop proprietor too taken with communicating through fishing metaphors. Our man Flint is also menaced by Baby Brent, who appeared on numerous sardine cans in his callow infancy and who has been riding on this diaper-wearing fame ever since. It’s also worth noting that Bruce Campbell plays the town’s mayor, and this casting is every bit as pleasant as you might expect. Flint’s invention is let loose at the unveiling of a preposterous sardine theme park — with The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” suitably matching this crass commercialism. Inclement weather soon takes on a new meaning. There is also Sam Sparks, a one-dimensional meterologist voiced by Anna Faris, who offers a contrived romance subplot and a tired geek vs. beauty dichotomy that’s out of step with the film’s scientific sympathies.

This nifty-looking universe — centered on a town located on “a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic” called Swallow Falls (no relation to the Maryland park) — hasn’t entirely accounted for the supreme messes arising from these food-related meteorological mishaps. Sure, there is a vehicle that drives around town, hurling leftovers into a giant pile. But surely great torrents of ice cream and spaghetti sauce would slick up the hamlet. There are rat-birds flying around the place, and they’re seen several times chomping away at the stray bits of food. But do they carry disease? (Indeed, why do we never see animated rodents for the bacteria-carrying vermin that they are?) And why doesn’t Swallow Falls have an exterminator? Furthermore, if the Swallow Falls population has been eating nothing but sardines during its history, why does Steve the Monkey — Flint’s happy servant, appositely voiced by Neil Patrick Harris –have a Gummi Bears fixation? Surely, his master wouldn’t know about Gummi Bears if there’s been nothing but sardines on the menu.

And when all this food falls from the heavens, why are the townsfolk familiar with it? I must presume that, despite the town’s limited resources (no exterminator, no doctor, no lawyer), all citizens somehow manage to take several months of vacation. But surely there are dishes here that they have never tried before. Come to think of it, the pelting cuisine is mostly American. We get burgers, steaks, pizza, nachos, jelly beans, and hot dogs. Lots of breakfast food but no frittata or smoked salmon? Foodies will be upset. For that matter, no Indian food? Chinese food? Mexican food? When some vaguely Italian spaghetti drops from the sky, one character shouts, “Mamma mia!” I will leave the PC types to argue over whether this possibly Anglo-Saxon, anti-multiculturalist conspiracy. In the film’s defense, I must point to Chief Earl Devereaux, a cop voiced by Mr. T, who scrunches his butt before dealing with his a stressful scenario and somersaults before writing a ticket. Poor Mr. T is assigned this mouthful by the screenwriters: “You know how fathers are supposed to express their appreciation for their sons.” That doesn’t quite have the ring of “I pity the fool,” but Mr. T does what he can.

How can one find plausibility in this giant peach of a premise? To cite another incident, giant pancakes fall from the sky, followed by two square dabs of butter, and then followed by a melange of syrup. Since all this is animated — in 3-D and in IMAX, ideal for a 420-friendly crowd were this not a family film — this is all very pleasant to watch. But the pancake dilemma also assumes that all three breakfast components will fall at precisely the right times and spatial coordinates. Likewise, a roofless restaurant has diners holding out their plates waiting for steaks to pelt down hard from the sky. The success of this operation hinges upon (a) the sky remaining sunny, (b) the steaks somehow magically landing in the desired plate positions, (c) the steaks not hitting these diners in the head and rendering them unconscious (there are apparently no lawyers or courts in this town; so I presume nobody in Swallow Falls is litigious), (d) the steaks maintaining an ideal warmth over the course of a fall of several thousand feet, and (e) the steaks landing on the plates without breaking apart or otherwise being split into inedible pieces upon impact.

You see the problems.

In an open letter to Alexei Mutovkin, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that plausibility within fantasy is uprooted by wishful thinking. And Cloudy, as enjoyable as the film frequently is, relies very much on wishful thinking. It is wishful thinking to expect a really cool idea like falling food to hold up. Then again, Roald Dahl managed to hold our attention with James Trotter back in 1961. So maybe we should blame the filmmakers. Expanding her thoughts further, Le Guin also wrote that a fantasy story’s plausibility rests upon “the coherence of the story, its constant self-reference.”

By Le Guin’s standards, Cloudy is a failure. And I suspect that because the film often lacks narrative coherence, it will not last very long in the heads of children hoping to ride this gleeful storm out. This film possesses too much energy for its own good. It feels the need to constantly insert characters doing funny things in the background. It is terrified of inserting a natural break, perhaps because we’re not meant to think too much about the world that the film presents. The film therefore lacks confidence, in large part because the coherence and the constant self-reference, as I’ve just demonstrated, fails to make sense.

(For parents, I should probably also note that I observed two kids having a difficult time near the end because of the film’s relentless tsunami of visual information. One boy retreated to his mother’s lap, crying and exhausted. Another was frantically waving his arms at the screen and began to jump up and down in confusion. The 3-D is certainly impressive at times, but little ones may get overwhelmed.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this film isn’t fun. But it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is more interested in perpetuating a concept than building a world. The filmmakers have avoided Ron Barrett’s illustrations from the book, opting for a peppy and textured look that does away with Barrett’s lines and shadings. But Barnett understood that a fantastic premise, particularly an unlikely one, needs a little reality to make it work, to make it coherent, and to avoid wishful thinking. Had this film opted for conceptual quality instead of quantity, it might have stood toe-to-toe with Pixar.