Animation seems to be going through something of a renaissance at the moment, partly thanks to the increasing popularity of cinema shot on 3D – based on the logic that it’s much easier to shoot animation for 3D cinema rather than filming with immensely cumbersome, not to mention delicate, equipment in the real world. Not to mention that the attraction of 3D itself, with the exciting illusion of objects flying right towards the audience’s collective faces, helps attract more bums pay for seats. From the stellar Coraline’s stop motion to entertaining enough Ice Age sequel; even Pixar shot its Up for 3D, and got to open the Cannes Film Festival (the first time an animated movie was handed such an honour). But while Europe’s audiences wondered why Pixar’s latest opus was delayed for months, , Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs quietly snuck and opened globally, including our humble island, on the 18th of June.
Cloudy represents what appears to be another Hollywood trend, that of adapting children’s picture books into full length movies; even Spike Jonze is doing it with the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are, turning Maurice Sendak’s book – all ten pages of it – into what appears will be a full epic on childhood, imagination, emotions, and the expression thereof. But let’s not analyse movies which aren’t even out anywhere yet; after all Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the second animated movie which deals with food, the first being Pixar’s Ratatouille, that little movie dealing with a cooking rat let loose in a fine Parisian eatery (or director Brad Bird’s dealing with his favourite theme, that of talent and genius ultimately championing against the mediocre, the uncreative and the critic). Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, on the other hand, takes inspiration from a much loved picture book by Ron and Judy Barrett of the same name; one that is not really well known to audiences outside of the States and Canada and that I’m personally not familiar with outside of a few minutes on Google. This original source is a simple tale about a town where it used to rain food every day. That’s all to there is to it.
The movie, on the other hand, starts off in a sad, grey island tucked somewhere in the Atlantic, trapped in economic depression after the world decides that its main export, sardines, is gross and not worth eating. Our protagonist is one Flint Lockwood, an inventor of great, if skewed, genius and near endless belief in oneself, famous amongst the locals for being a walking hazard.
After his latest invention, a miraculous machine that turns water into food, destroys the Mayor’s latest brainwave to saving the town, a Sardine-themed amusement park, and with that budding weather girl’s Sam Spark’s chance for meteorology fame, Flint is shunned from town – until it’s realised that Flint’s machine, earlier seen rocketing towards the clouds, just started causing food to miraculously rain from the clouds. Flint is himself rocketed, this time to starhood, and with him the town’s prospects for gastronomic tourism from all over the globe. Until, of course, Sam Sparks, who reveals herself far smarter than she looks, starts questioning whether too much food is a good thing. Right on cue, the food machine starts freaking out, the food rain starts getting larger, and disaster starts to strike – in the shape of a spaghetti tornado.
It’s an amusingly absurd premise, and one that carries the usual themes – believing in one’s self, being true to yourself, taking responsibility for one’s actions, a difficult father-son relationship – the works. Visually it’s fresh and interesting; the characters are pleasantly cartoony, with a rubbery and textured aesthetic that comes somewhere between 40’s and 50’s cartoons, rubber toys and a dash of European animation thrown in for good measure. The island of Swallow Falls appears to be trapped somewhere in the 80’s, replete with caricatures of the era’s cars, electronics (Flint’s computers look like a cross between a Commodore 64 and an early Apple PC) and dress (check out town hero ‘Baby’ Brent’s sweatsuit! To confirm my 80’s theory, the Mayor and Police Officer Earl are respectively voiced by no other than Bruce Campbell and Mr. T himself). It’s truly a terrific visual combination, helped by the nuanced colour palette and a likable, expressive cast of characters.
Oh, and it’s a funny movie – very, very funny. The story itself is told in a simple and straightforward manner, gently leading the audience towards the next gag or set piece, never languishing on its emotional themes or reducing itself to preaching. Starting off as a broad situation comedy with plenty of slapstick, halfway through gears are smoothly switched to an edible take on the disaster movie genre, favourite of the 80’s and early 90’s. For the sharp eyed movie lovers there’s a number visual references and gags, which are subtle as they are funny; to spoil a couple (they’re too good to keep) the Mayor’s sudden gluttony due to the food rain makes him morph into something reminiscent of Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, while weathergirl Sam produces a weather analyzing machine that reminiscent of a particular Blade Runner prop (please tell this science fiction geek that he’s not the only one who thinks that it’s clearly a Voight-Kampff machine).
Huge kudos to Imageworks’ co-directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. This is a true gem of a movie, and one all should be encouraged to watch. If this is to be compared to any movie, it’s with last year’s other surprise, Dreamworks’ terrific Kung Fu Panda. Both are terrific pieces of sheer entertainment which remain true to their emotional and thematic cores, which is something all great cinema, animated or not, should aspire to being.