Let's face it - you see another silly looking CG kids film coming down the pipeline and you cringe. So many of them are just awful, sorry excuses for second rate stand-up comedy quips and equally underwhelming character design accented by Commodore 64 level graphics. You don't hold out much hope for their being adult-level laughs nor do you think the story will do much more than send you screaming from the theater come the credits. It's all aimed at the still forming cerebellum of your local rugrat, boring electronic babysitters at best. So imagine the delight facing anyone over the age of eight when a movie like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs rolls around. Not only does it take the beloved children's book and blow it up, grabbing inspiration without being dully reverent, but director's Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a movie for everyone - jaded parent, cynical young adult, texting adolescent and easily amused wee one. In a year with stellar examples of animation, it is one of the best.
When one of his devices destroys Swallow Falls attempt to draw tourists (albeit in the form of a sardine-themed amusement part), inventor hopeful Flint Lockwood vows to save his hometown's fortunes. His ides arrives in the form of a machine that can turn water into food. After the device blasts off into space and starts raining victuals, it looks like Flint's plan might work. Swallow Falls becomes a major media sensation, especially after an upstart weather girl named Sam Sparks arrives to file regular reports on the place. Naturally, the mayor wants to use this novelty to his advantage, and he pushes Flint to do more and more. When the machine malfunctions and threatens the populace with giant out of control groceries, it is once again up to Flint to find a solution.
Wonderfully inventive, absolutely hilarious, and brimming with a charm that few modern CG titles possess, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs stands along Pixar's best as an example of what the newfangled animated artform can accomplish. From the unusual voice acting choices (James Caan? Mr. T?) to the excellent combination of caricature and realism, this is a very special movie in an often marginalized medium. Like Kung Fu Panda, which piled on the Shaw Brothers references while treating us to a visually astonishing experience, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller use the basic storyline to celebrate all manner of pointed pop culture references and homages. Unlike the similarly structured Shrek/Shark Tale attempts however, the gags are more clever, the asides more insular, and the overall tone more ironic and satiric than slapstick and silly. Does this mean that kids won't adore the adventures of Flint, his funny monkey Steve, and the bumbling if lovable townsfolk of Swallow Falls? No way! Does it also mean that adults won't be beguiled by the endless imagination and sly humor on display? Are you kidding? This is one of the best animated movies of this or any year.
A lot of the success comes from how Lord and Miller treat the material. Instead of being 100% faithful to the source book (which would be hard considering it's rather thin and narratively limited), they use the premise as a jumping off point. They then devise individual beats which allow them to create compelling plot points and warm, welcoming characters. This is especially true of "talking" simian Steve, who uses his single word vocal device as a brilliant comic Greek Chorus. We also get a fabulous fatherly turn from Mr. T, who takes his polished policeman role along the border between parody and perfect parenting. Even Bruce Campbell blends in flawlessly, his turn as the town's suspicious leader a wonderful near villainous turn. Combined with the amazing visual flourishes here and there (rendered with an engaging combination of cartoon allusion and high tech detail) and you've got the making of a masterwork.
Thankfully, Lord and Miller really do rise to the occasion. They know when to take things seriously and sense when to drop them directly into the lap of lampoon. Even better, they forge individuals who we care about, especially our hapless hero Flint Lockwood. As voiced by SNL's Bill Hader, he is a true underdog, the kind of defiant dreamer and rogue innocent who has the ability to realize his aims, but still lacks the underlying self-esteem to push forward. Most of that comes from his frowning, beefy father. As played by Caan, we get a typical authority figure who ultimately finds a way to support his son's skylarking. When put together with Anna Faris' nerd in the form of a Weather Channel lite reporter and Adam Sandberg as former child star "Baby" Brent, you've got a consistently winning company of characters to enjoy and support. But there is more to the movie than just CG people interrelating. There's action, romance, humor, heartbreak, fun, fantasy, and enough elephantine provisions to give even the most dedicated dieter pause to reconsider their calorie count. In a genre which frequently sees friendly if forced failures, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is treasure.
For a movie that originally played theatrically in 3D, the transfer choices from Sony are rather strange. They include a totally unnecessary 1.33:1 full screen image (which one imagines is still referred to corporately as "family friendly") and a much more appropriate 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen version of the title. Both pictures are colorful, detailed, and eye-popping, even without the added stereophonic "dimension". Sure, the Blu-ray will probably blow you away (see Ian Jane's review for a look at said format), but the standard DVD ain't too shabby.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (offered on both transfers) is terrific. There is lots of spatial movement and direction, some interesting atmospherics, always crystal clear dialogue, and a wonderful musical score from Devo delight Mark Mothersbaugh. Since it often mimics a big budget actioner, the back speakers do get involved, and there are some funny sight gags that play even better within the multichannel choice (the open air steak house bit, for example).
Spread out over two discs, the added content for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is plentiful, though initially they appear to be almost exclusively geared toward the untrained bratling mentality. There's a food fight game, a music video from iCarly's Miranda Cosgrove (with accompanying sing-a-long and behind the scenes Making-of) and some pointless extended scenes. But there's also a few nice film oriented featurettes including a decent look at how the movie was conceived, an overview of the voice actors, and a look at some early development sequences and sketches. We also get a peak at the progression reels, watching as the movie goes from basic ideas, to badly drawn objects and shapes, to smooth CG bliss. Finally, there is a fascinating commentary track from Miller and Lord. Accompanied by star Bill Hader, they get their geek on when discussing the case (especially James Caan and Mr. T.) as well as debate over the inspiration for various adlibbed lines and ideas. Overall, the features are fun, if not completely up to the level of the fantastic film they support.
In a year which saw animation more or less dominate the cinematic landscape, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is excellent. It stands right alongside Up, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, and The Princess and the Frog as a prime example of what can be done with a little imagination, a lot of dedication, and a creative crew who know how to maximize both. As a result, this slick and satisfying entertainment earns an easy Highly Recommended rating. Sure, the Blu-ray may be the way to go for pristine presentation and a multitude of updated disc perks, but in any format, this film is a winner. More importantly, it also emphasizes that you can't judge every computer generated effort by its type. Sure, when a title like Shrek or Ice Age come along, you more or less realize the limited returns you are about to partake in. For all their photorealistic rendering, the jokes are vaudeville level at best. But Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs proves that not all CG is so stodgy. Sometimes, it can be quite magical...and moving.