Back during the Disney animation boom of the ‘90s, their cartoons were a franchise unto themselves, despite a lack of recurring characters from movie to movie. Actual sequels, if they existed at all, were relegated to direct-to-video cash grabs. But with the advent of Pixar, DreamWorks, and more animation houses, the landscape changed, from a reliable annual line-up of a new Disney movie, an old Disney reissue, and maybe one or two fumbling attempts to imitate Disney, to the current onslaught of six or eight big cartoons every year.
Today, almost all of the major studios and several mini-majors have their own animation units, all increasingly eager to mint their own franchise (repeatable, merchandise-able) characters. Pixar has Toy Story (among others); DreamWorks has Shrek, Madagascar, and anything else it can clone; Universal has Despicable Me; and Sony, apparently, has Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. That 2009 film expanded a painterly children’s picture book into a busy but funny cartoon about inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) who builds a machine—the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator,” or, FLDSMDFR—that can convert water into food, resulting in meatballs, among other menu items, raining from the sky.
Now, that unlikely adaptation has been expanded into an equally second installment. After evacuating the food-storm-ravaged island of Swallow Falls, Flint and his friends return to their hometown at the behest of Flint’s idol, Chester V (Will Forte), an inventor in the Steve Jobs mode, who supposedly wants to save Swallow Falls. Thanks to Flint’s invention, the island has mutated into an elaborate parody of Jurassic Park, with creatures like taco-diles and cheese-spiders running wild.
This conceit gives Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 a weirdly specific objective, rendering more story-based goals secondary. It creates an unending stream of food-based animals and accompanying food-based puns (“There’s a leek in the boat!”). Its dedication to these gags borders on bizarre, at times wonderfully so. But perhaps the weirdest aspect of the Meatballs (two film) franchise is that amidst the clamor of its frenetic animation, it has carved out a niche, of sorts.
Most US mainstream animation seems to be aiming to emulate or outdo its immediate predecessors and competitors, resulting in clumsy approximations of Disney’s classicism or Pixar’s family-friendly humanism, or second-generation copies of DreamWorks (which usually amounts to Disney plus more quasi-hip chatter). Sony’s cartoons so far try for the whiplash energy of old Looney Tunes. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 may not reach those heights—it’s wild but not truly anarchic, silly but not always clever—but it reaches the level of the better ‘90s TV animation like Tiny Toon Adventures or the better Nickelodeon cartoons.
This may sound like faint praise, but Cloudy 2‘s animation is also, in its peculiar way, more cinematic than TV offerings. The human characters are all rounded faces and stretchy limbs (the movements of Chester V, who has an army of holograms of himself at his disposal, are particularly distinct). The cuter species of living food might give the designers at Kid Robot some pause, as the movie appears to borrow their aesthetic, but it’s a novel influence, at least.
If a lot of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 looks toy-ready, that quality fits the movie’s sensibility. Rather than alternate kid-pandering slapstick and parent-pandering inside jokes, the filmmakers manage to blend the two worlds. Flint and meteorologist Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) are ostensibly adults, but their relationship has a childlike sense of play: their drawn-up plans for a new science lab, drafted in crayon, could be a kid’s blueprint for an awesome new treehouse. The movie won’t teach kids much about adult relationships (Flint and Sam kiss once in a while, but she’s repeatedly and euphemistically referred to as his “friend,” which, on second thought, might teach kids something about adults), but it has an unforced and appealing sweetness.
Adults can also appreciate the movie’s parody of self-satisfied corporate-science culture—Chester V’s Live Corp is like Google and Apple running wild in tandem—while anyone can marvel at the animation of Flint’s pet monkey, Steve (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). Steve’s antics are kid-pleasing slapstick, but also wonderfully animated and framed, as in one scene where the monkey flips out over a trick candle that won’t go out in the background of a serious scene. But Steve’s antics are also isolated; too often, the movie undercuts its own instructive feints, which will be familiar to any cartoon viewer: Love your friends and family! Stand up for yourself! Be nice! But just as the first film was funnier and more inventive than it needed to be, the second helping makes more of the same surprisingly satisfying.