The opening title card alone deserves applause. “A film by a lot of people”, it reads, adding modesty to the achievement of writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who between them – and a lot of other people – have fashioned one of the nicest surprises of the year. Seemingly dumped into an odd September, non-family release slot by Sony, we walked into Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs not really expecting anything too special. But while the film has a few problems, this remains one of the most unexpected treats we’ve seen in some time.
At first, it seems we’re firmly in Meet The Robinsons territory. For those who didn’t catch Disney’s sorely underrated computer animated movie, it told the tale of a young inventor for whom things simply kept getting wrong. And that’s something that Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘ Flint knows all about. Based on the children’s book of the same name (by Judi and Ron Barrett), we first meet Flint in his younger days, as one of his crackpot inventions – spray on shoes – quickly goes wrong, leaving him ridiculed by his class, misunderstood by his wonderfully-characterised father (computer-generated characters without eyes needn’t be sinister, it seems) and only really believed in by his mother.
The film then moves forward to Flint the adult, with his mother long departed, and the inventions both keep coming and keep failing. Meanwhile, the town around him is faring little better. Swallow Falls, based on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (it’s just under the ‘A’ on the map), is a place once dominated by sardines. However, when the world realised that sardines weren’t actually very nice, business bombed, and we find Swallow Falls a shadow of its former self, still dedicated to an industry that’s long since stopped bringing home the bacon (Flint’s father, keen for his son to work in his sardine shop and give up this inventing lark, included).
Fortunately, the town’s mayor (voiced by the mighty Bruce Campbell) has a plan. Without asking anyone, he’s gone and spent the town’s budget on a big new tourist attraction, to which he manages to persuade a TV network to send a reporter. That reporter is weather intern Sam Sparks (herself a geek in hiding), who duly turns up hoping this is her big break.
But then Flint finally strikes gold. His latest massive invention, no doubt compiled with a few spare parts from the Maplin catalogue, manages to make food from water, and when circumstances contrive to send it into the sky – taking out the launch of the new tourist attraction in the process – food starts raining on the town of Swallow Falls. What’s more, it’s food that Flint can order up, all the while keeping an eye on the Dangeometer should the demands get too high.
This, roughly, covers the first third of the movie (as much of the plot as we’ll talk about here), and the fear from this point was that once the food came raining down, the fairly straightforward premise would struggle to stretch to feature length. It does so, however, albeit at the expense of a slightly slower second act, yet it throws so much quality at the screen, we barely noticed.
For instance, the animation looks glorious. We’re not talking Pixar standards here, but you’d suspect that even at Disney, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs has made people sit up and take notice. Certainly when compared to relatively safer projects such as DreamWorks’ Monsters Vs Aliens, Meatballs comes off as more creative, coating the screen in visually striking imagery and colour (and we genuinely wonder if the ultra-realistic water in it is simply live action footage, given just how convincing it is).
Then there’s the voice cast, as good and perfectly pitched a roster of vocal talent as we’ve heard in an animated movie for a long time. Bill Hader as Flint and the aforementioned Bruce Campbell are both excellent choices, but the show-stealers are Mr T as Earl the cop (yup, he does get to spit the word “fool” out) and Role Model‘s Bobb’e J Thompson as his son. We’d sit through a spin-off movie with that pair in it in a beat.
Finally, there’s a feeling from top to bottom that someone simply bothered. Often very funny, with barely a plot point wasted in the script by the time the tidy denouement comes around, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs even manages to handle the inevitable ending surprisingly well. The film genuinely is some achievement, and the “lot of people” who made it have every right to be delighted with the end result.
While you could argue that its morals are a little obvious, and that its story is stretched perhaps a little too much, this is still a really very good animated movie, in a year that increasingly seems to be brimming with them. Frequently funny, and with a fine line in fish metaphors, it firmly marks Sony Pictures Imageworks as a company to watch. Here’s hoping, in the light of its strong opening at the US box office, that Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs goes on to bring in the kind of takings that it genuinely deserves.