Saturday, September 26, 2009

Funny with a Chance of Deeper Meaning.

Theorists can talk all they want about what makes a good movie. But in the end, it all comes down to one thing; does it work? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs works.

What is remarkable is how stories from a simple kid's story book managed to gain both comic clout and a little relevance in its transition to a movie. You don't have to be serious or obsessed with social problems to insert them into a movie. The cute idea of scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hadler) developing a machine that turns atmospheric moisture into food means more than a simple gimmick to make kids giggle.

The island town of Sardine Falls is suffering a depression. It's not as grim as our real American depression; there are no closed stores, just people looking unhappy and moping around the grey buildings. No one can think outside the limited worldview of sardines; when Mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Campbell) creates a theme park, it's all sardine based, and his big fat son Brent (Andy Samburg) still likes to play "Baby Brent", the sardine icon, into young adulthood.

Flint's machine starts raining down food products - and note that they're nearly all fast food products. Only rarely does a salad or a vegetable drop down. And, just like real-world Americans, the Mayor starts gorging on those food products, becoming unbelievably obese, even for a cartoon character. (Why isn't everyone else packing on the fat? That's what Americans are doing, thanks to the corn sugar in nearly everything we eat.)

This becomes the new ticket for the Mayor, who modifies his theme park idea to use the free food falling from the skies. I live in Orlando, Florida, which was once a sleepy little mid-state town that was a stop-off point between Jacksonville and Miami. Walt Disney put my town on the map, and irrevocably filled it with tourist stuff. And in the same way our economy has crashed because the tourists can't afford to come here any more, the food from the skies becomes gigantic and starts destroying buildings and threatening lives.

All of the above is based, of course, on greed. Greed in overbuilding tourist businesses that are now closing up quickly; greed in assuming that the housing bubble would never pop; greed in wanting more and different kinds of food. And not coincidentally, greed at a time when many places around the world face killing shortages of food.

Okay, social significance aside, this film is one of the least pretentious animated features I've seen in some time. It has the requisite moral about believing in yourself, but when that gets out of the way there's a lot of joy in the film. For once the voice cast consists of people who are genuinely funny and are unashamed to act silly. Neil Patrick Harris - Dr. Horrible himself! - plays the synthesized voice of Flint's monkey Steve. Mr. T voices the blustering cop, with a strong dedication to his family. James Caan plays Flint's big, verbally-challenged father who can only speak in fishing metaphors. (Speaking of which, if you want to understand Dad's funniest moment, listen to Tom Smith's song "Tech Support for Dad." Deep in the voice credits are famous voice actors like Bob Bergen, Jess Harnell and even Laraine Newman. It sounds like they had fun doing this movie.

There is only one slight problem I have, and it's not uncommon. All the pictures of Sam show her in her "TV weatherperson" mode, bright-eyed and somewhat dumb-sounding. One of the plot points is that she is secretly a nerd, needs glasses and likes her hair in a scrunchie. That is how she ends the film, being true to herself. Unfortunately, little girls are still attracted to "princesses" and "pretty ladies" and that's how she looks in the film PR and available photos. Once again, truth is trumped by surface appearance.

Aside from that quibble, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a nice surprise after a summer of nearly nothing. And take a look at the credit sequence. Like Pixar's films, they animated the characters in the credits, providing a sort of "where are they now" look. Except I like these more than recent Pixar credits. They hint - hint only - that this would work as a 2-D television series.