Why can't Hollywood clear its 'Cloudy' vision?

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

25 September 2009

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 

Hollywood can do many things well, but it can’t do small.

It’s not geared for small. It’s afraid of small. It distrusts small.

In particular it distrusts little books from which it hopes to wring big box-office hits.

The most recent example is “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” a 1978 children’s story that has become a perennial seller thanks to its clever premise and lovely pen-and-ink illustrations.

The 36-page book, about a small town where the sky rains food (steaks, spaghetti, veggies, burgers, pancakes), is a quick read, perfect for a bedtime story. It’s whimsical and fun; many a young adult grew up on it and now regards it with much affection.

The 3-D computer-animated film version opened Friday, promptly taking the weekend’s top box office honors.

But it doesn’t bear much resemblance to that slender volume. It’s big and noisy and filled with characters and situations not found on the printed page. While it isn’t a disaster, it loses the book’s modest voice and outlook in a downpour of animated foodstuffs.

This is nothing new, of course. For decades when people mentioned “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” you knew they were talking about either the lovely book by Dr. Seuss or the 1966 made-for-TV animated film it spawned.

That cartoon version, utterly faithful to Seuss (and improving the book with the addition of a couple of terrific songs), is a holiday favorite . We love it because it captured the book’s most endearing elements — the goofy poetry, the fantabulous creatures and buildings of Seuss’ illustrations.

And without commercials it had a running time of only 22 minutes ... not that much longer than it took to read the book.

And then in 2000 we got Ron Howard’s live-action “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” that lumbering, joyless behemoth. Seuss’ whimsy was crushed beneath the runners of the Grinch’s computer-enhanced sleigh. A charming story was buried beneath tons of production value and Jim Carrey’s exhausting shtick.

It was awful — though I’m bound to note that Howard’s cinematic hippo did earn $260 million in its original domestic run, a statistic that makes me quake for the future of our republic.

A couple of years back we got another elephantine adaptation of a slender Seuss volume with the computer-animated “Horton Hears a Who!” Same problem.

And the sooner we forget Mike Myers’ disastrous live-action “The Cat in the Hat,” the better we’ll all sleep.

The journey from page to screen isn’t always cause for lamentation. The movie adaptations of Chris Van Allburg’s children’s books “Jumanji” and “Zathura” were largely satisfying because they captured the essences of the originals and their ever-escalating series of impossible disasters. When the screenwriters had to invent plots or characters to flesh out a yarn too simple for a feature film, they at least took their cues from the author.

And they benefited from the fact that “Jumanji” and “Zathura” weren’t that well-known. You could mess around with them without inciting howls of protest from true believers.

Which brings us to the big-screen adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” set to open Oct. 16.

Directed by the resourceful Spike Jonze and adapted by Dave Eggers, this live-action big-screen version of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 kiddie book certainly has the right look. The trailers look great. The designs of the terrible creatures with whom our young hero Max interacts are dead-on reproductions of Sendak’s illustrations.

But the book was only 36 pages, more than half of them illustrations. And the yarn, about a misbehaving boy who dreams an encounter with wild creatures whom he conquers, was written with an economy of words that is breathtaking. You can read it aloud in just three or four minutes.

Which leaves me wondering: How will Jonze be able to turn this into a feature film? I suspect there will be lots of dialogue and lots of subplots.

But maybe the book’s essence — about an angrily rebellious kid who comes to terms with the concepts of home and responsibility — will provide an emotional background upon which to hang the movie.

At least I hope so.

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