Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

By Elise Nakhnikian

To turn the children’s picture book it’s based on it into a full-length animated feature, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs puts a lot of meat on its bones. And I do mean meat: This is no veggie tale.

It’s not what you’d call subtle, either. I had never read the book until after watching the movie, so I took the movie on its own terms, but I wonder whether its fans will accept the changes writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made to Judi Barrett’s story, or the way they’ve amped up its energy level and dumped the book’s subdued cross-hatched drawings for a candy-colored explosion of action. The book treats its story as a fable, a tale told by a grandfather around a family dinner table. The movie explains it all to us – in Imax 3-D, no less.

Yet the two feel related, like siblings from a family with a strong shared sensibility. They’re both an appealing blend of whimsy and homespun wisdom. And they both center around an imaginative concept: a town where food rains down from the sky.

We are not talking manna, whatever that is. This is America, by god, so we’re talking REAL food. Hamburgers. Steaks. Spaghetti and meatballs.

Lord and Miller create a back story to explain the book’s central mystery: Where did all that food come from? They also dream up a whole new set of characters, starting with boy inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), an upbeat misfit and the creator of a machine that turns water into food.

Flint’s best friend is a monkey named Steve (Neil Patrick Harris) who wears a contraption of Flint’s invention that translates his thoughts into English. It’s the same idea as the dog collars in Pixar’s Up, but it’s done better: Steve is all id and idiocy, which makes for some nice comic relief.

Our hero eventually gets a human sidekick too (she’s also his love interest, but that part of their relationship is strictly PG). Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) is a smart girl who hides her brains, acting “cute and super-perky,” as another character puts it, so she won’t get picked on. As depressing as it is to be reminded that girls still have to do that in 21st-century America (does the fact that brainy boys can get picked on too make it better or worse?), it’s a treat to see a female lead whose arc is about learning not to play dumb.

The minor characters are sketched broadly enough so little kids can get the picture, yet they don’t feel overly familiar. My favorites were an underemployed, understated Guatemalan immigrant (Benjamin Bratt) with hidden talent to burn and Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan, doing some surprisingly tender, melancholy voice work). A refrigerator-shaped slab of a man with two enormous eyebrows where his eyes ought to be, Tim is a nurturing dad who feels things deeply but can’t articulate what’s in his heart. The speech he makes when Sam gives him Steve’s translating device should resonate with every kid who feels estranged from a parent who doesn’t do well at expressing his or her support.

There are plenty of funny lines, sight gags, and humorous situations, like when the fate of the world depends on Flint being able to walk his tech-averse father through e-mailing him a file via cell phone. Tim’s interpretation of “drag it off the desktop” made me laugh out loud.

But the best part of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is Flint’s elaborate lab and the inventions that emerge from it. Animation frees the filmmakers to create some magical sequences, like the giant Jello mold pictured in the book, which materializes here as a love offering from Flint to Sam. The two slip through its rubbery rind into a hollowed-out interior, playing on its wobbly surface or diving into the translucent core in a courtship scene as transcendent as WALL-E and Eva’s dance in outer space.

Cloudy doesn’t talk down to its audience. In fact, it probably sails right over the heads of very young kids much of the time, spoofing targets like appearance-obsessed newscasters and hypocritical politicians. A running joke about the town’s slowness to wean itself from its longtime dependence on an outmoded business rings so true it almost qualifies as social commentary.

But we’re back to pure spoof when a pompous new anchor (Al Roker) reports on the huge entrees that are raining down around the world, landing first on famous landmarks like Times Square and the Eiffel tower. “It looks like the foodstorm is falling in an unusual pattern,” he remarks.

Next time I see a disaster movie that falls back on that tired trick, I hope I’ll remember that line.

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