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Dustin Putman

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
Voice Cast: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, Will Forte.
2009 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for brief mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 12, 2009.
There's something to be said for untapped talent. How else to explain two novice writer-directors by the names of Phil Lord and Chris Miller making the leap from television to feature films and cooking up an animated film better than the last three Pixar releases? 2007's "Ratatouille" might be more mature, and 2008's "WALL•E" and 2009's "Up" may have individual scenes of greater emotional content, but "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" is more consistently savvy and joyful, so very good for feeling effortless without seeming to try too hard. The script is only a loose rendering of the classic children's book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett—Lord and Miller have expanded the story and characters, bringing their own sense of humor and imagination to this adaptation—but the impact it makes with its target audience should be just as rapturous and enduring. Best of all, older viewers won't have to claw their eyes out; the finished product is entertaining and witty enough to impress all ages, its rapid-fire play on words and satirical comments about parent-child relations and a beauty-over-brains mentality surprisingly succinct as they no doubt fly over the heads of small-fry audience members.

In the quaint fishing town of Swallow Falls (located, we learn, off the east coast directly behind the 'A' in 'Atlantic'), sardines aren't just a gross, slimy food, but a way of life. With the ribbon-cutting of new theme park Sardine Land approaching, ambitious inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) believes he has finally mastered an ingenious new creation that turns water vapor into food. After all, a little variety never hurt anybody, and the sight of cheeseburgers raining from the sky is something Flint is sure nobody has ever witnessed before. Soon he has become the toast of the town, itself retitled Chew and Swallow and repositioned to become a tourist Mecca for travelers interested in seeing three square meals per day fall from the clouds. All of this is well and good for a while, but the increased onslaught of food proves increasingly unhealthy for the residents as the machine planted in the sky nears overheating. When this happens, the entire western hemisphere will become, as one character describes it, "one big potluck." Teaming up with new friend and confidante Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Weather News Network's latest intern-turned-reporter, Flint sets out to right his wrongs and avert disaster.

"Things are sardine to look up," Sam Sparks amusingly reports early on during "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," a family movie that surprises with its imagination and overall sweetness. Free of inappropriate material and smarmy flash-in-the-pan pop culture references that plague the majority of today's animated pics, writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller cleanly and efficiently tell a good story, and they do it simply and well. The film's messages—about the dangers of overconsumption and societal excess, the acceptance of diversity, and the wrongful looks-obsessed world we currently live in—are not mistaken even as they are covered in a light, unforced manner that never talks down to viewers or becomes needlessly preachy. While Flint's troubled relationship with widowed father Tim (James Caan) strikes a serious, relatable note and Sam's journey toward becoming her true self rather than the person she thinks everyone else wants her to be is touching, the tone mostly stays bright and cheery. Disaster-style peril, such as a twister of spaghetti and meatballs or a BLT sandwich falling onto the Eiffel Tower, make for vibrant visuals and are good for some mid-level excitement, but it is fairly clear no one's computer-animated life is in life-threatening danger.

Conceived with the exaggerated features of cartoon creations, the characters are gorgeously animated, as are all of the different settings, both reality-based (i.e., the rickety fishing piers off the coast of Swallow Falls) and fantastical (i.e., a neighborhood covered in scoops of ice cream). A scene where Flint takes Sam on a day trip and surprises her with a mansion made of Jell-O in a meadow of wispy brush and autumnal hues is lovely to behold. The kindred bond that forms between Flint and Sam is the film's highlight, the place where it gets its heart. Few people believed in Flint before this latest invention actually worked, and it's the same with Sam, a meteorological aficionado who has begun to believe that dumbing herself down and looking pretty is the only way to get ahead in a man's world. It is Flint, then, that helps her to see how much more attractive her real self—intelligent, bespectacled, ponytailed—truly is.

As underdog hero Flint Lockwood, Bill Hader (2009's "Adventureland") is sincere and sympathetic, having fun but choosing not to ham up his role with "SNL"-style theatrics. The real stunner, though, is Anna Faris (2009's "Observe and Report"), delivering a vocal performance so fraught with life, humor and poignancy that one forgets Sam Spark is animated at all. She steals the show—not an easy task considering how strong the whole cast is, from James Caan (2008's "Get Smart") as Flint's bushy-browed, tackle shop-working father Tim, to Andy Samberg (2009's "I Love You, Man") as the smarmy, grown-up 'Baby' Brent, once the poster child for Baby Brent Sardines.

The action-packed climax as Flint and Sam set out to shut down the malfunctioning skyward machine admittedly goes on a little long, but that is a minor quibble in comparison to the many pleasures "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" has to offer. It is often not the case that genuine originality shines through in studio filmmaking, but that feat has been more than achieved here. Not only does the whimsy-threaded premise enchant, but so do the warm characters, the technical expertise, and the music, including an end credits sequence scored to Miranda Cosgrove's "Raining Sunshine" that sends things out on a high, giddy note. In a year that has seen its fair share of animated turkeys (e.g., "Battle for Terra," "9," "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs"), "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" proves that when solid showmanship all around is involved, Disney and Pixar are not the family market's only hope for quality.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman