A parable of environmental destruction via excess food, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs begins as washed-up juvenile inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) saves his hometown of Swallow Falls from starvation. His invention, a machine that turns water into food, leads to the film’s next step, yet another variation on the Frankenstein myth: the machine escapes its creator’s control, nestles itself in the plentiful clouds above the town, and starts to rain down food on request.
That’s fine when the fare is fist-sized cheeseburgers, but much less pleasant when the steak that falls has as much chance of flattening a customer as satisfying his appetite. Setting aside the consequences of human lust and appetite, Cloudy turns its moral tale of the BLT that squashed Paris (and other culinary disasters) into an innocuous rites-of-passage tale, in which Flint is humbled, saves the world, gets the girl, reconnects with his dad, and generally exemplifies the kindergarten mantra of “It’s okay to be different.”
But while the plotting runs on autopilot, with a few parent-friendly references to disaster movies of the past, the film also taps repeatedly into appealingly childish fantasies. The overnight snowfall that leaves Swallow Falls nestled among giant scoops of pastel-colored ice-cream that doesn’t melt, for example, or the edible Jello mould the size of a house, transform the domestic into the glorious exotic. The movie sensibly focuses on the action, cutting its fast-paced dialogue to a minimum.
Cloudy‘s focus through kids’ eyes, is underscored in Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan), who couches every emotional statement he makes in sardine-fishing metaphors his son can’t understand. In a clever sleight of hand, Flint’s love interest, weather station intern Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), grabs one of his most useless inventions, a monkey-to-human automatic translator, and hangs it around Tim’s neck. For the first time, Flint understands his father’s expressions of love.
A spaghetti tornado and a mountain of waste food engulfing the town of Swallow Falls indicate how the machine’s production of sentient food becomes frightening. Anyone who has heard “The Gummi Bear ABC Song” will squirm at the smiling arrival of the translucent gummi warriors, while the headless cooked chickens that consume Baby Brent (Andy Samberg) may take rotisserie off more than a few menus.
Wavering between the simplistic and the thought-provoking, the movie’s conventional hostility to technology seems to have little relevance to kids whose parents had to leave their cell phones at the door of the preview screening. The romance between Flint and Sam, all googly eyes and twitchy shyness, peddles Love 101 as an answer to every problem. But the ability of cop Earl Deveraux (Mr. T.) to tell his son, Cal (Bobb’e J. Thompson) that he loves him, and Cal’s readiness to accept that love with equanimity, breaks down the familial distance that troubles Flint and Tim.
In the end, Cloudy refuses to face the consequences of Flint’s actions, except in very basic emotional terms. Large swathes of the planet are polluted with giant food. A colossal landslide destroys Swallow Falls. His friends and family lose everything. But all that matters is Flint’s finding the love of his life, learning how proud his father is of him, and being hailed by the townspeople as the savior of the world. Conveniently, the fact that Flint’s actions also triggered the almost-end of that world vanishes from the screen, as the movie collapses under its own illogic. Maybe it would be more ethical to remind kids that making amends requires more than tearful family reunions and embracing one’s inner geek in the pursuit of love. It might even require thinking before acting, or learning that one could spend the rest of one’s life on the necessary cosmic clean-up.