'Meatballs' Comes With A Helping Of Social Critique

Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) in 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs'

Would You Like Fries With That? After many failed experiments, scientist Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) finally tastes victory when he figures out how to turn water into food. Sony Pictures Animation hide caption

itoggle caption Sony Pictures Animation

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

  • Directors: Chris Miller, Phil Lord
  • Genre: Animated Comedy
  • Running Time: 81 minutes

Rated PG: Brief mild language ... of the sort you'd expect to hear if you saw a meatball fall from the sky

With: Bill Hader, Anna Farris, Mr. T

Warming up an audience for a recent screening of their beguiling new movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, writer-directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord offered living proof of why most children's pictures today end up as the revenge of the nerds. Clutching popcorn and soda, one of this team of Dartmouth-educated animators was skinny and owlish with enormous glasses; the other oblivious to the shirttails floating free of his baggy jeans. Grinning amiably and insisting that they were 15 years old (both are in their early 30s), the pair summed up their film as "a superexpensive student movie."

Hardly. Loosely based on a book by Judi Barrett — both directors say they loved it as kids — and stuffed with A-list voiceover, this Sony Pictures production is animated with love, care and ample mischief by, as the opening credits announce, "a lot of people." It goes without saying that Flint Lockwood (voiced by Saturday Night Live regular Bill Hader), the socially maladroit young amateur scientist who sets off dominoes of culinary trouble before emerging as the film's hero, is a sharp-angled geek with enormous glasses whose bedroom wall carries a poster of his hero Nikola Tesla, inventor of the alternating current.

Needless to say, Flint is not a popular child. Indeed, he has trouble relating to anyone, least of all his own inexpressive, forbidding dad (James Caan), whose minimal features — his face is basically a pair of eyebrows and a mustache — appear to have been inspired by Mr. Potato Head. In a good way.

Observing the first rule of all fairy tales worth their scary salt — mothers and other benign influences must be dead or gone by the time the opening credits fade — Flint's mom is put out of action soon after we learn that she was an unflagging booster of her lonely son's crazy inventions. One of these, an elaborate contraption that converts water into food, inadvertently causes the heavens above the small town of Swallow Falls (unnecessarily renamed from the book's delightful Chewandswallow) to open and rain mountains of treats, none of which you'd find at Whole Foods.

Like every Hollywood film beamed at children, Cloudy comes fitted with the usual object lessons about father-son bonding, staying true to yourself and persevering. More amusingly, the movie is a critique of greed that reshapes the book into a PSA for portion control. But first, without slipping into preachy sanctimony, the movie brings to candy-colored life the junk-food fantasies of every child and former child in the audience. Unhealthful nutrition may be bad for you, but oh, what fun it is, at least until you start getting sick.

When Flint's experiment runs amok, his gray and depressed coastal town, which subsists miserably on leftover sardines from its defunct processing plant, undergoes a dramatic climate change that turns it into a candy-colored sugar high — and then, more ominously, into a consumer-friendly tourist spot hilariously pounded from on high with cheeseburgers, giant pizzas and fried eggs. Fountains in the new and improved Swallow Falls overflow with mac and cheese; a cop's son gets an ice cream city for his birthday; and, in a delicious dig at the perfidy of politicians, the pompadoured mayor (Bruce Campbell), thrilled that his benighted town is finally on the map, gets fatter and fatter until he's a rolling tub of lard.

If this weren't enough of an animator's dream, Flint and the usual array of self-redeeming outcasts and losers embark on an odyssey through the atmosphere's layers. Eventually, they must reverse the caloric deluge, in segments that play like a fond 3-D salute to Hammer Horror, mediated by Wallace and Gromit. Punctuated with killer meatballs, a human roasted chicken and other missiles rich in bad cholesterol, the action is spiced with giddy romantic comedy when our young dweeb attempts to win the heart of a smart but dumbed-down young weathergirl (the sublime Anna Faris) by building her a giant house out of Jell-O.

By the end of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, we in the U.S. may feel for the overindulged little birthday boy who falls into a food coma. Overseas audiences, though, may be forgiven for dismissing his predicament as a peculiarly American nightmare and rooting instead for his savior, a sensible Guatemalan bearing celery.

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