By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 18, 2009
If, as a child, you were a fan of the fanciful picture book "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," about a tiny island and the giant food that falls upon it from the sky, you might be a bit bewildered by the animated film adaptation of the story. After all, at no point in the book's 32 pages, dryly written by Judi Barrett, does a talking monkey mercilessly devour gigantic zombie gummy bears. Similarly, none of Ron Barrett's black-and-white line illustrations portray a man wearing a huge roasted chicken.
For those few viewers unsmilingly loyal to even the slightest of childhood stories, this antic, candy-colored movie might feel like a betrayal. But any moviegoers possessed of funny bones will laugh their fool heads off at "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."
It's true that any movie that crams so many jokes into its brief running time risks making audiences feel as overstuffed as if they'd just eaten a school-size pancake. That's why it's a lucky thing that so many jokes are so great: "Cloudy With a Chance" has less in common with "Shrek" than it does with gleefully absurdist comedies like TV's "Arrested Development." Instead of depending on a litany of pop-culture gags to score cheap laughs, writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller populate the island of Swallow Falls -- so little that on maps it's hidden behind the "A" in "Atlantic Ocean" -- with appealingly wacky characters, and let them loose in surprising ways.
There's would-be scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), whose latest invention turns clouds into food. There's Police Chief Earl Devereaux (Mr. T), whose love for his son is matched only by his love for short shorts. And there's Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), once the diapered mascot of the local sardine company, now -- since the sardine market crashed once everyone realized that "sardines are super gross" -- a diapered grown-up trapped in the past.
Salvation arrives for the residents of depressed Swallow Falls, stuck eating sardines every day, when Flint's invention makes it rain cheeseburgers. And bacon. And ice cream. Flint's miraculous machine puts Swallow Falls -- re-christened Chewandswallow by the enterprising mayor -- back on the map, with a little help from the enthusiastic reporting of weather intern Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), whose love of serious meteorology is hidden behind a mask of perky airheadedness.
But when his device goes haywire and the town is menaced by a perfect storm of enormous food, it's up to Flint, Sam, Baby Brent, the aforementioned talking monkey (Neil Patrick Harris) and a Guatemalan doctor/comedian-turned-cameraman (Benjamin Bratt), to save the day.
In a key moment in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," hottie Sparks thrillingly reverses the nerd-transforms-into-sexpot trope from every teen comedy when she puts on her glasses and fixes her long, lustrous locks into a ponytail. The film's message to kids is blunt but welcome: It's great to be smart. And with scenes of comic mayhem as funny as those in any adult comedy released this year, it helpfully reminds parents that the lesson holds true for movies, too.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (81 minutes, at area theaters), is rated PG for brief mild language.