What’s the last family film you can think of that name-checked Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell?
When in movie history has the girl ever revealed her true self and become more attractive to the hero by putting on spectacles and pulling back her hair?
And, let’s face it, when’s the last time any of us has seen a former child star wearing a giant roasted chicken battling comestible defense mechanisms while a peanut-allergic weather girl lowers the hero via spaghetti rappelling rope into a shaft of razor-sharp peanut brittle where the slightest scratch could prove deadly to her?
In these and so many other ways, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs takes the road less traveled. Supremely silly yet peppered with unexpected sophistication and subversive wit, Sony Pictures Animation’s latest, more inspired by than based on the popular storybook by Judi and Ron Barrett, works harder and flies higher than you’d think, following in the footsteps of the studio’s previous Monster House and Surf’s Up. (So, yes, a lot better than Open Season. Nuff said.)
Which is not to say that Cloudy, from first-time feature directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, doesn’t hit some overly familiar notes, too. Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a young science enthusiast, just wants to invent something great and prove himself to the skeptical citizens of Swallow Falls, but his inventions never turn out quite as expected (compare A Bug’s Life, Jimmy Neutron, Robots, Meet the Robinsons). No one understands or believes in him, including, alas, his uncomprehending, disapproving father (compare Ratatouille, Happy Feet, Despereaux, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar 2, etc., etc.).
What’s surprising, though, is how much conviction Cloudy brings to its hero’s science-nerd milieu, from his childhood posters of Tesla, Bell, Newton and Einstein (the tongue-sticking-out shot, natch) to repeated close-ups of Flint hunched over a computer keyboard, eyes focused like laser beams as his flying fingers pound out computer code.
Then there’s the weather-channel intern, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), who has the requisite cute’n’perky excitement network bosses look for in a stand-in anchorbabe, but actually turns out to have a serious interest in meteorology and science generally that she’s learned to hide. As silly as the tech is, Cloudy could be the first film of its ilk in years that could actually inspire young viewers, including girls, to think more about science.
As for Flint’s lumbering, taciturn father Tim (James Caan), while he’s never quite as humanized as he could have been, the third-act sequence in which he goes to bat for his son in a pinch (I know, the elder Lockwood would have used a fishing metaphor, but none of us would have understood it, including Flint) is both heartwarming and hilarious — particularly for anyone who’s ever tried to talk a technically challenged parent or relative over the phone through the mysteries of email, as well as anyone, probably, who has ever been that technically challenged parent.
It counts for something, too, that the old man’s concerns about his son’s latest invention — or rather how it’s being used — are more or less vindicated. As is so often the case in science, the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator — FLDSMDFR for short, a mouthful of an acronym that becomes a running gag — is part inspiration, part accident. The inspiration part is Flint’s idea to use microwaves to mutate water molecules (go with it) into any-kind-of-food molecules. The accident part happens when Flint surreptitiously hooks up the FLDSMDFR to the local power plant, inadvertently rocketing it into the stratosphere … where, as it happens, there are plenty of water molecules.
For Sam Sparks, who’s in Swallow Falls for a weather-channel puff piece, the resulting meteorological phenomena are the opportunity of a lifetime. And when Flint discovers Sam’s science smarts, sparks fly — or, if not fly, at least bounce around on Jell‑O.
All of this is original to the film; the book makes no effort to explain the strange weather of the town of Chewandswallow. In the movie, “Chewandswallow” is the new, tourist-friendly moniker of Swallow Falls, formerly the sardine capital of the world until an unfortunate news flash (sardines are super gross) killed the local economy. The unscrupulous mayor (Bruce Campbell), whose previous plan was to rebrand Swallow Falls as the sardine tourism capital of the world, now plans to bill the town as the world’s food weather tourism capital, complete with theme park, and, of course, meals from heaven three times a day. But what if the FLDSMDFR is pushed too far? What about the ever-growing stockpile of leftovers?
Cloudy takes satiric jabs at everything from disaster-movie conventions and news-media superficiality to addictively stupid YouTube videos and British anti-Gallic sentiment. (A global montage shows an American news broadcast dubbed into local languages all over the world, with the phrase “a la mode” left untranslated everywhere except in the UK.) At the same time, it noodles themes from conspicuous consumerism and environmental irresponsibility to recklessness with resources and infrastructure.
The feminist angle is gentler and more winsome than in DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens, where it was soured with male-bashing. I can’t believe I’m talking so much about ideas in a family cartoon with set pieces like a runaway giant fish-bowl, a Jell‑O palace, a spaghetti-and-meatball twister, a food-alanche, and an aerial assault on an unexpectedly adaptive, labyrinthine food system, but there it is.
For that matter, the chaotic climactic act nails the grandiose madness that Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs was aiming for. (If you get a chance to see Cloudy in 3-D, IMAX or both, it’s worth it.) DreamWorks and Blue Sky Studios may be better established as animation studios, but Sony’s Cloudy outshines them both.
Cloudy is even unexpectedly generous to one-joke characters like Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), the spoiled former child star who has been Swallow Falls’ mascot since infancy, and Earl Devereaux (Mr. T), the overzealous small-town cop who leaps and flips through town like a hyperactive ninja on steroids. Earl turns out to be a loving family man who dotes on his son (Bobb’e J. Thompson) — a counterpoint, of course, to Flint’s emotionally unavailable father. Still, how often does a son in a Hollywood cartoon respond to his father’s declarations of love by saying, “I know, Dad — you tell me every day”?
As a tale of female empowerment and male comeuppance, Monsters vs. Aliens might have been provocative, like, 50 years ago. Today, nothing seems more subversive — and unlikely — than a family film with a heroic leading man who’s the equal of the leading lady — one boys can look up to without having to learn a lesson about male weakness. Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.