Phil Lord & Chris Miller | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG
The island town of Swallow Falls exists for one purpose: sardines; the fishing, packing, and distribution thereof. But when the world suddenly realises that sardines are gross, the town’s economy is left in tatters and the only foodstuff the islanders have is sardines. (While we’re on the glum bit, the location of Swallow Falls is identical to the real-world location of Bermuda, except in this reality almost every inhabitant is Caucasian and the island is indisputably part of the US. This is why you don’t scrutinise the geopolitics of kids’ movies, especially American ones.)
However, genius young inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) invents a machine that can turn water into any food you ask for. When he accidentally fires it off into the atmosphere, it begins to rain burgers, and it looks like the town’s fortunes will face a massive change. But is that all for the best, etc etc etc.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs has a silly title, a silly premise, and I thought it looked kinda silly too, which is why I didn’t bother with it before. A bit like How to Train Your Dragon, really, because then I began to hear good things about it, and when I found myself with the offer of a free Blu-ray (for reasons too dull to go into) I picked this on a whim (and because the other choices were pathetic — I mean, I could pick two, and the other I got was Resident Evil 4 just because I have the first three on DVD. I’ve not even watched the first two sequels, and I only thought the original film was OK. But I digress…)
And, again much like Dragon, Cloudy subverts first impressions by actually being really good. And I mean that as in “good for adults”, not just “good for kids” — not an unworthy aim, and something Cloudy also achieves, but not a main consideration in my personal assessment of things. The main selling point is that it’s very funny. Of course there’s the slapstick cartoon humour, which is well done, but there’s also a lot of great one-liners, random asides, and the like. Not ‘adult jokes’ by any means, but I think it makes the film fun for grown-ups too.
There’s also subplots that deal with why it’s OK to be a nerd/geek/whatever the term is this week, and why that’s better in the long-run (perfect for school-aged kids, I guess); and another about female empowerment, which is probably the kind of thing that ought to be in kids’ movies more often. Not that they don’t have their share of strong or equal female leads, but… well, maybe they do. That’s a Big Discussion for another time, but it’s something I think Cloudy handles notably well. Sure, it’s framed partly in a fairly traditional romance narrative, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem.
I suppose themes of acceptance by society and/or your family, of finding your place in the world, and of proving your worth, are all regular topics of kids’ movies — the “I feel different but I want to fit in” thing seems to be pretty universal. But Cloudy succeeds in making many of these feel fresh, and surrounds it with such fun that even if it didn’t you probably wouldn’t care.
This is buoyed by an array of memorable characters, voiced by a moderately starry cast all giving quality performances. Bruce Campbell is particularly noticeable as the mayor, though Neil Patrick Harris is slightly wasted as Steve the monkey. He’s a very funny character, but that’s in the writing, directing and animation — the voice work is spectacularly minimal. Apparently Harris was offered the lead but turned it down for the “more interesting” part of Steve. Nothing against Hader, but if I were the directors I’d have tried to persuade him to do both.
One final thing I particularly liked was the pace. It seems silly to criticise some 90-minute movies for not getting on with things, but almost inevitably you know scenes or moments, or even whole plot threads, will turn up to slow things down, even in otherwise entertaining films. Not so here. It moves like the clappers through the main plot, the sequences devoted to subplots aren’t tedious (even the romance one), and — perhaps indicative of the speed it’s moving at — the climax starts halfway through the film! That’s not an exaggeration: the events that form the film’s final-act grand-finale begin around the 42-minute mark. You’d think that would unbalance the film, toppling it under the weight of the entire second half being what most films deal with in the final quarter, but no, because it’s still moving at such a rate that you don’t notice. Well, clearly I did notice — but, most importantly, I didn’t mind.
In fact, the only criticism I have is the end credits song. It’s by some Disney pop-brat, it’s called Raining Sunshine, and it’s exactly as dreadful as that sounds. But the actual music in the film is good, particularly the action-movie-esque theme that plays on the Blu-ray menu, so there’s that.
I should probably learn to stop writing off non-Pixar animated movies so readily (and, based on what I’ve heard and seen of their last few efforts, maybe slacken off on the Pixar love. I say that as if it’s news — plenty of people already have; and I’ve never been wholly on that bandwagon anyway. But I digress…) Big, bold, colourful, funny and exciting, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the kind of film I imagine a lot of kids love and watch on loop. In the process they may even be learning some Important Moral Lessons, which, crucially, aren’t too heavy-handed. Many of these aspects work for adults too. I don’t know if you’d want to watch it on loop, but you may certainly want to watch it again.
The UK free-TV premiere of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is at 4:20pm this Sunday, 18th October, on Channel 5.
Previews of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 are in UK cinemas this weekend, with the film on wide release from next Friday, 25th October.