Meatball! (with apologies to Robert Crumb)
Maybe I was in a bad mood when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs came out. Maybe I just resented the idea of taking one of my kids’ favorite picture books and pumping it up into a full-length feature, so I passed on it in the theaters.
Just to let you know, I’m not one of these purists who says they should never turn a picture book into a movie; Where the Wild Things Are? Meet the Robinsons? Horton Hears a Who? I gave all of those a thumbs-up (in thumbs-up order, A+, A-, B+). It’s a tricky transition to make but some films do it better than others. It’s easy actually, if you follow one simple rule: respect the source material. Spike Jonze worked closely with and had the blessings of Maurice Sendak to make Wild Things, William Joyce (author of the original A Day with Wilbur Robinson) was aboard Robinsons as an executive producer, and Horton was faithful one hundred percent (more or less) to Seuss’ picture book. So once Meatballs becameNetflixable I gave it a shot.
Meatballs was true to the book’s title, its idea of food falling from the sky – and not much else. Not that there was much else to ditch, admittedly, but at the very least I would’ve liked to have seen at least one visual nod along the way to Ron Barrett’s meticulously cross-hatched original illustrations that gave the book’s outlandish premise a real-world solidity.
Instead, the film indulged in character designs that can only be described as Muppetoid, particularly the blank-faced hero Flint Lockwood, a ringer for Sesame Street’s Guy Smiley; the same for Flint’s all-eyebrows dad Tim and The Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef.
Meatballs’ plot is the standard animated feature trope, “shmendrick loser with dreams makes good,” used in everything from Robots (in which Robin Williams’ character tells the crowd looking to that film’s hero for help, “leave him alone, he’s got his own dreams that won’t come true!”) to Robinsons, and due to return soon in How to Train Your Dragon. In Meatballs, shmendrick Flint’s (why does he have a name that sounds like a Simpsons action hero spoof?) inept childhood inventions make him a laughing stock to everyone except his I-believe-in-you mom – who’s long-gone by the time adult Flint’s inventions are also flopping, leaving him and his gruff dad in a failure-to-communicate ditch.
A weather gal soon shows up and in the finest tradition of a 1960s Jerry Lewis movie falls for Flint for no apparent reason. Complications resulting from the unexpected success of Flint’s food-out-of-thin-air machine soon ensue, involving his dad, the town’s no-nonsense cop, its sleazy mayor, Flint’s talking monkey (thanks to one of his earlier inventions) and a host of others.
In fact, too many complications ensue, too many character arcs arc, and way too many climaxes end the film. Flint and friends invade the cloud where his food-making machine is ensconced and excreting food onto the town below (and yes, the imagery is rather intestinal and quite sphincterish) and ultimately bring the bestial machine to bay. (Oops, did I give away the ending? Sorry, I should’ve put a spoiler alert before that last sentence.)
Yeah, the gargantuan food flopping onto the town looks digitally realer than real – in fact, so much realer than the rest of the film that I couldn’t forget I was watching a lot of math – a lot of pixels and zeros and ones – onscreen. Meatballs is thankfully free of fart jokes (unless I tranced out and missed them), a real accomplishment for a film based on creating and consuming vast quantities of food. There is the requisite pop culture reference or two, including a Twilight Zone gremlins-on-the-wing moment featuring gummy bears crossbred with a kung-fu showdown. And what seems to be s.o.p. for 21st century CGI features, the closing credits are done in 2D animation, just to remind you what cartoons looked like back in the day.
As nice-guy Flint, Bill Hader doesn’t get to tap into his lunacy-just-under-the-surface persona that made his work in Adventureland and Superbad so much fun. Anyway, while Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs disappointed me, I’m sure Sony Pictures Animation is quite pleased; the film churned up a respectable $223 million worldwide box office, not counting the DVD/blu-ray revenue that’s currently falling from the sky, like manna from heaven...