Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
‘Meatballs’ is a bit bland, but still fun
Any movie based on a children’s picture-book is bound to be a feat of extrapolation, but taking on “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs’’ poses a special challenge. The 1978 book has a funny concept - a town called Chewandswallow, where the food supply falls from the sky - but no characters and little plot to speak of. Food drops, in ever more destructive weather patterns, but no one questions why.
So the new 3-D animated movie version essentially starts from scratch. We get a tiny island town called Swallow Falls, which lives well off the sardine trade until global sardine demand takes a serious downturn. And we get a protagonist, a nerdy young inventor named Flint Lockwood (the voice of Bill Hader), who is misunderstood by his father, Tim, a bait-and-tackle shop owner voiced with endearing gruffness by James Caan. Flint decides to save the town from depression by inventing a machine that converts water into food, and when his gizmo somehow winds up suspended in the sky - just don’t think about it too much - it starts raining cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and any other food that Tim orders from his computer.
At first, this is good for everyone, particularly an aspiring weather girl named Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), the town’s gluttonous mayor (Bruce Campbell), and the kids who get to enjoy a morning snowfall of ice cream. But the people get greedy, the portions get too large - there’s a message about obesity here, but thankfully it isn’t pushed too hard - and the machine, now overworked, starts going haywire.
The most impressive thing about this film is the vibrancy of its world, created by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, veterans of the animated TV series “Clone High.’’ The characters are carefully drawn in the metaphoric sense, and cast with the obligatory hipster cred: Andy Samberg plays “Baby Brent,’’ a grown-up slacker who’s still sponging off his fame as an infant sardine mascot; Mr. T plays a police officer who does acrobatics in short shorts; and Neil Patrick Harris provides the voice of Flint’s sidekick, a monkey named Steve.
There are occasional references to the book: a roofless restaurant, a pancake that falls atop a school, an enormous orange Jell-O mold. But what’s striking, for any devotee of the print version, is how little this looks like the book. Ron Barrett’s detailed illustrations are distinctive and unique, but the movie arrives in a familiar, glossy style that makes the characters all look like bug-eyed plastic action figures. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful at times, especially during scenes involving water or Jell-O. And the animators have great fun with the fake-fur look of Tim’s bushy eyebrows and mustache.
Still, it’s all very Hollywood, appealing but derivative, inspired by the likes of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’’ and every disaster movie ever made. As such, it might be a little scary for the smallest kids, who won’t take well to the concept of a giant ear of corn rolling toward them in 3-D. For everyone else, it’s engaging, perhaps a little too frenetic, and full of the expected lessons about being yourself and expressing your love. It’s not especially filling, but it leaves a pleasant aftertaste.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org