Don't Try the 'Meatballs'
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
As the media keep reminding us, America is in a food crisis. We eat vast quantities of appalling foods, our citizenry is increasingly obese, and as documentaries like "Food, Inc." showed us, even when we think we're eating "natural" foods, quite often we're doing just the opposite. Into all this justified gloom comes "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," a well-intentioned children's film that has the unfortunate effect of making food, all food, seem utterly revolting. It's the gastronomical version of "Scared Straight!," in 3-D.
The animated feature is loaded with underlying moral themes, including the usual dare to be different pabulum, but the most prominent are that gluttony is a major sin and that the American love of supersizing is truly dangerous. The great irony is that, in order to make these points, Sony and director Phil Lord have supersized the charm right out of a much loved children's picture book.
Judi and Ron Barrett's 1978 book "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" is a simple flight of fancy; a town called ChewandSwallow is blessed by a weather system that delivers it all manner of delicacies, straight from the clouds: bacon, eggs, lamb chops, hot dogs. There's no explanation of why or how, it just is. After less appealing foods (brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola and overcooked broccoli) begin to rain from the sky, followed by a tomato tornado, the townsfolk are forced to flee on a fleet of boats made from stale sandwiches, with slices of cheese and pizza for sails.
It's a clever goof, barely plotted and not meant to be taken literally. The framework is that Grandpa is telling "the best tall-tale bedtime story he'd ever told." We observe the residents of ChewandSwallow rather than getting to know them. But in Sony's version, they are shoved in our face with the panting urgency unique to 3-D. We first meet Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) as a nerdy little boy who longs to be an inventor, although his talent is questionable. He lives in a town called Swallow Falls, where sardines are the lone industry are the only menu item on offer.
His stern father Tim (the movie's best human creation, voiced by James Caan, sports an extreme caterpillar brow that wiggles with lovely eloquence) does not approve of Flint's ambitions, but his mother (Lauren Graham) is supportive. "The world needs your originality Flint, you just have to grow into it," she tells him. Naturally, in the manner of kindly cinematic mothers throughout history, she's dead before he hits puberty. Ten or so years later, Flint is a young man, working on a device that will produce food from water (not quite loaves and fishes). A twist of fate sends his device skyward, and it begins raining cheeseburgers and such.
The phenomenon becomes a cable TV event, giving a spunky weather girl named Sam (Anna Faris) her big break. The town's mayor (Bruce Campbell) becomes Flint's biggest fan, renames the town Chew and Swallow and tries to tap into its tourism potential. By the film's climax, when the food has mutated into extreme sizes, the mayor has ballooned into a shape that makes the humans in "WALL-E" look merely pleasantly plump. "Bigger is better," he crows, just before ordering up a Vegas-style buffet. Subtlety is not the strong suit of "Cloudy."
There's a subplot involving Flint's attraction to Sam, and in one of the film's weirdest but almost wonderful scenes, he takes her to a golden palace built entirely of Jell-O (an image right out of the Barretts' book). As they jiggled around together, I thought simultaneously: that is the most accurate Jell-O ever seen on-screen; and, please, for the love of God, make it go away immediately. During this perverse seduction sequence, Flint helps Sam get back in touch with her inner nerd, giving her a reverse makeover back into big glasses and a ponytail and calling her out on her habit of saying something "super smart" and then tittering like an idiot. It's possible that America's smart dorky girls will find this on-screen representation of themselves validating. It's also possible that they will roll their bespectacled eyes over the patronizing implication that it is Flint who liberates Sam's intelligence.
But more likely the film will induce queasiness of a more physical sort, because, as it turns out, watching a 90-minute illustration of gluttony is mostly, moral or not, plain old gross. The non-human visuals are often spectacular -- kudos to the people who worked on that spaghetti and meatballs tornado -- but in the manner of a car wreck: so disturbing you have to look but are then overcome with regret. The sight of the townsfolk face down in fields of ice cream, suckling at the earth's dairy teat, was grotesque enough. But then the giant chickens showed up, walking and flapping despite the fact that they have been beheaded and are golden brown from the rotisserie, and all I could think was, "Thanks a million, Sony." Nothing like turning that rare thing, a go-to, easy dinner, into fodder for many a youthful nightmare to come.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/ Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.