A pleasant surprise, the animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs skewers more closely toward the quality exhibited in films produced by Pixar and Studio Ghibli than those produced by, well, almost everyone else. Missing are the pushy pop culture references that continue to hopelessly date the likes of the Shrek series, the unseemly visual schemes that turn such efforts as Delgo and Battle for Terra into eyesores, and the scatological humor that runs rampant in the majority of today's family features. By my count, there's only one crude gag in Cloudy, a mere misdemeanor considering the imagination driving the rest of the film.
Although it's based on a children's book (by Judi and Ron Barrett), Cloudy is one of those equal-opportunity exercises that provides as much merriment for adults as for kids. After all, it's the grown-ups who are sure to get a chuckle out of a voice cast diverse enough to include Bruce Campbell, James Caan and Mr. T, and it's the grown-ups who will pick up on the movie's gentle ecological themes. As for the rest, the adults will feel like kids when bombarded by the film's freewheeling innovations and bright color schemes -- all made even more irresistible in 3-D.
The film's central character is Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a gangly inventor living in a small town exclusively dependent on its sardine trade. When the rest of the world collectively deems sardines to be yucky and not worthy of consumption, the town suffers, and it's up to Flint to save it. The young man's past inventions (such as spray-on shoes) were all flawed and never caught on, but his latest contraption -- a device that turns water into food -- seems to be a winner. After its unceremonious launch into the heavens, the machine pours down all sorts of cuisine -- hamburgers, pancakes, pasta, you name it -- on a regular basis. Flint becomes the town's savior, earns the grudging respect of a tough cop (Mr. T), and even lands a romance with a brainy weathergirl (Anna Faris). But he has yet to receive the approval of his father (Caan), a meat-and-taters kind of guy, and when the unctuous Mayor Shelbourne (Campbell, portraying the toon version of Murray Hamilton's opportunistic mayor in Jaws) talks Flint into pushing his invention to its extreme for the sake of the community (and for the sake of Flint's newfound popularity), the well-meaning scientist acts in a manner that promises stormy weather ahead.
The visual design of Cloudy is wondrous: There's something inherently amusing in seeing a castle built out of gelatin or a street lined with ice cream rather than snow, and the movie repeatedly offers up these gastronomical delights. Yet underlying the frivolity is a warning about our nation's gluttonous and wasteful ways (best exemplified by the mountain of rotting, unwanted food barely being kept from pouring into the town by a single wall), a message certainly to be lost on children (who'll wish they had their own candy-dispensing machine hovering above their homes) but relevant to conscientious adults.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an entertaining ride, but it doesn't possess the lasting power of, say, Up or any of the other top-tier animated features that stick with us for the long haul. It's more comfortable in the company of Kung Fu Panda and Monster House: Like those worthy animated features, this one shows up, gets the job done, and leaves us feeling satisfactorily full.