Saturday, February 06, 2010
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)
A tasty little 'Meatball'
First-time filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) is a winning little morsel of a movie--sprinkled with topical references to junk food diets and overconsumption, lightly spiced with foodie satire, not too heavy on the moralizing.
It's based on the slim, 32-page children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett, which presents the kind of whimsical situation perfectly concocted to catch a child's attention: a town where food falls from the sky instead of rain or snow (never underestimate children's literature--children are the harshest of critics, extremely difficult to please; classics in the genre have a simplicity of appeal that is almost impossible to reproduce (see, for example, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are--a pleasing enough movie on its own, but not a true adaptation of Sendak)).
The Barett's book pretty much presents the situation as is, then proceeds from there in a series of richly detailed illustrations (hotdogs falling from the sky, for example, followed by a cloud of mustard and a drizzle of soda). Much of the appeal (aside from the basic premise and all the little details tucked away in the corners (the town is called Chewandswallow and its paper The Chewandswallow Digest)) comes from the matter-of-fact way the townspeople accept and even exploit the situation--always leaving home with fork and knife in hand (in case of sudden downpours), keeping umbrellas upside-down to catch a splash of orange juice.
Difficult sell; I can imagine the filmmakers reproducing the artwork and doing a slim thirty-minute short, at most (which I'd love to see, personally). To blow the book up to a more commercially viable running time of almost ninety minutes, they presumably had to add the backstory, involving a small town called Swallow Falls. The community has seen better days--its biggest company, the Baby Brent Sardine Company, has long since closed, and the economically depressed townspeople have been largely living on unsold cans of sardines ever since. Enter Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a wannabe inventor who means well but invariably creates technological disasters (but don't they all, at least in American animated movies?)--the town is still plagued by the flock of Ratbirds he once bred. Flint uses a machine, the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (or FLDSMDFR for short) to mutate water molecules into food, draws on too much power, and sends the contraption rocketing into the sky, where it hovers among clouds and starts sending down cheeseburgers.
One wants to ask questions--how to 'mutate' a water molecule, for one, and what about the hygiene issues involving food falling on the ground, or left uneaten for days? And I'm tired of this longstanding disdain for canned sardines--if you're willing to expend the effort, Spanish and Portugese canned sardines are actually quite tasty; Italian ones best of all. Canned seafood from Galicia, in Barcelona, are so carefully crafted and prized a single can costs anything from twenty to seventy dollars (when you open a can of mussels, rich globules of fat float in the golden broth--the juices and oils have merged inside the can, and produced a taste rivaling that of fresh seafood). One can imagine the people of Swallow Falls abandoning their ugly canning factory and going into artisanal manufacture, selling their handmade canned sardines at thirty dollars a pop.
And here's where we entered, bookwise. The movie borrows some of its best ideas from the book--a steakhouse minus roof, where the diners wait for their orders to drop from above, for example. The movie can't quite replicate the wondrous image of a gigantic jello setting in the horizon, but it does turn said jello into a kind of playhouse Flint can romp in with his new date, Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), the pretty weather news intern who is reporting on the phenomenon--the animators really go to town with the idea of an elaborate jello mansion.
It's not earthshaking, consequential storytelling, and I like that. There's a message somewhere in here, about moderate eating and care of the environment , but we're not whacked over the head repeatedly with it. There's something about Flint's dad Tim Lockwood (James Caan), who can't seem to express any affection for his son--but the resolution to that potentially sticky subplot is relegated to a brief moment with a brain translator. Unlike, say, Brad Bird's Ratatouille, we are not slowed down by meaningful flashbacks, or attempts at serious drama; instead of half-hearted and rather idiotic attempts at fantasy (say, a rat guiding a cook's hand by tugging the hairs on his head), we go shamelessly whole hog (giant donuts crashing down from the sky and rolling across the town).
Plus, I like the sometimes horrific, sometimes sexual imagery--the giant meatball contains various suggestive orifices, killer roast chickens surround and threaten our hero, and the FLDSMDFR is imbedded in a mountain of pulsating, suppurating meat that calls to mind James Wood's gun-hand (not to mention pulsating belly opening) in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Filmmakers Lord and Miller could have gone a lot further with this and I'd have loved it, but I suppose we have to make do with what we have, and call this a fairly satisfying meal.
First published in Businessworld, 1.28.10