Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“Have you ever felt like you were a little bit different? Like you had something unique to offer the world…if you could just get people to see it? Then you know exactly how it felt…to be me.”
-“Go ahead, Flint.”
“What is the number one problem facing our community today? Untied shoelaces! Which is why I’ve invented a laceless alternative foot covering. Spray-On Shoes. Voila!”
-“How you gonna get them off, nerd?”
-“What a freak!”
-“He wants to be smart, but that’s lame!”
“I wanted to run away that day. But you can’t run away from your own feet.”

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The opening titles of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs – a film I reviewed and put in my top 10 a decade ago – begin magnanimously, calling it “A film by a lot of people”. This sentiment is as true here as anywhere else, but the two names that hang most heavily over this film are Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. I now know this pair as the creative geniuses behind Clone High, 21 Jump Street (and its misfire of a sequel), The Lego Movie, and (as producers) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. They also wasted a couple of years of their life developing Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was ultimately completed as a dull, workmanlike exercise in box-ticking by Ron Howard (exactly the guy you hire for such a task). Nonetheless, as Lord and Miller were fired by Disney and then re-hired by…another part of Disney, they firmly and justifiably earned their reputations as the go-to filmmakers to try and make great films out of dull, corporate premises that seem just a bit thin on paper.

I remember the trailer for this film. It featured voiceover giant Hal Douglas in one of his final trailer narrations, and it really didn’t try to sell the film’s story.  It was just kinda, “Yay, pretty food!” The rest of it, about one young hero who wants to save his dull, economic wasteland of a small town from the inexorable reality of its global obsolescence? Not even Pixar could make that cliché of a story work. But somehow, Lord and Miller pull it off here, playing a never-ending game of Calvinball and making their hero the wide-eyed, optimistic mad scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), who wants to save the mid-Atlantic island of Swallow Falls – the site of a former sardine cannery and little else – by inventing a machine that can turn water…into food. This is not even the first abomination of nature that Lockwood has dabbled in, strapping a “Monkey Thought Translator” to his simian pal Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), fusing rats with what appear to be parrot wings (which “escaped and bred at an alarming rate”), as well as releasing artificially intelligent walking televisions. What’s amazing about this rapid-fire barrage of joke inventions is that they not only set the pace for one of the most joke-dense films I’ve ever watched, but nearly all of them become plot-critical by the end of the film. From the Flying Car to the Spray-On Shoes, young Lockwood was hilariously equipping himself with everything he would need to save the town, and it all paid off beautifully, for kid and adult viewers alike.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

Yes, this film ends with a Death Star trench run on a giant meatball. But let’s talk economics.

Let me just raise a middle finger in advance to the entirely imaginary haters who might suggest that I switch my brain off for this film, because there are some fascinating economics at work here that I wish to discuss. I can take this premise on its own terms, in which the sardine plant went bust because the entire world realized in one voice that “sardines are super gross”, and that Flint is motivated to build the machine in order to keep it in the back of his father Tim’s (James Caan) tackle shop, in order to open a lunch counter with food that isn’t “gray and flavorless”. Overlooking for a moment that Flint has essentially invented alchemy, a discovery that would instantly end world hunger, up-end the world economy, likely lead to reforestation and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (assuming the rotting food-pile doesn’t create a methane crisis of its own), as well as instantly make both lunar and Martian colonies possible, this plan doesn’t make a lot of sense even on its own minuscule terms. Flint wants to “save the town” by introducing a new, luxury good without any outside infusion of capital or resulting local increase in the labor market or wages. Sure, he might supplant whatever limited food industry that already exists in town, but with his water-powered magic box, he won’t actually contribute anything to the town’s economy besides a good that they’ll be unable to afford. He wants to eschew patent law, keep his world-changing invention under a cloth in a basement, and open up a Tiffany’s in Akron. It makes no sense at all. So when the town’s megalomaniac of a Mayor (Bruce Campbell) initially has a plan for sardine tourism, which quickly evolves into a debt-financed scheme to monetize the town as a must-see cruise-ship destination, supplied with an endless torrent of localized and highly perishable food-rain, the mayor is essentially on the right track! Flint is a crackerjack inventor, but he’s a lousy businessman. And like Tesla before him, he would’ve languished in obscurity without a loud-mouthed dickhead to ride his coattails in front of the rest of the world. Of course, all of that is how I would’ve felt before the device turned out to be a global doomsday machine, but that’s also about as far as my economic analysis goes, because all of the cottage industries that spring up in the wake of Flint’s invention are just visual gags, and most of them are solidly funny. The best by far is the chic and exclusive club, “Roofless”, which has a line around the block to serve…exactly the same food falling everywhere else. Amid a flood of storefronts including “Bibs”, “Spoons”, and “Your Name Carved Into a Banana”, the existence of such a club makes a sad sense. Just say it’s artisanal, sprinkle some truffles on it, and say no to 90% of the people who show up. You’ll make a mint, even if the adjoining alley is filled with them.

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

What to make of weather-intern and eventual Senior Food-Weather Correspondent Sam Sparks (Anna Faris)? I daresay this is about 60% of a good character, and Faris’ comic vocal performance is solid. Her motivations are simple: she wants to seize her one shot at fame and glory by reporting on the unprecedented weather event taking place in Swallow Falls, and quickly moves on from being pissed at Flint for embarrassing her with his food-rocket to seize the opportunity in front of her. But she’s still a bit of a reactive romantic accessory, and her sole repeated beat is a bit facile and childish: she was made fun of for being smart as a child, so she vowed to feign stupidity (and shed the firmly 90s-cinema “ugly nerd girl” costume of a ponytail and glasses) in order to endear herself to others. This is definitely a character from a children’s film, who says things like, “I like you like you!”, and the film forces her to keep dabbling in schoolyard woes even as she’s clearly well-educated in meteorological science. To put it bluntly, she doesn’t really seem like a grown-ass adult. But in a world where science was enough of a boys’ club that it allowed predatory scum like Jeffrey Epstein to infiltrate its ranks as a proud source of funding as late as 2014, it’s hard not to see the continuing relevance of this depiction after a decade, even if it’s presented in such an easily digestible way for children. If nothing else, this feels like a transitional portrayal for such characters, ushering in an era of increasing portrayals of women scientists in children’s programming where their mere presence is neither an ordeal nor a romantic afterthought. In a recent episode of Ask the Storybots on Netflix – yep, I’m now the parent of a toddler – Zoe Saldana made an appearance flying through space in a Flint Lockwood-worthy flying car as an astronomy professor, and her primary concern wasn’t casually answering the Storybots’ question of how planets are formed, but her Mad Hatter-like tardiness for her morning lecture. In space. I expect (and often now see!) more scenes like this, both in fiction and real life, in which a broader representation of scientists do what their predominantly white and male counterparts have always been able to do: show up, drop some knowledge, then drop the mic and leave. That’s now. Looking back to this point a decade ago, it’s fair to say Sam and Flint have a passable romance, never conspiring to deny Sam agency, even as half the leans-in for a kiss are awkward or ill-timed, and the mutually successful ones are sight gags about how Flint’s giant nose prevents their lips from connecting unless he inflates his cheeks like a puffer fish. This isn’t great. But it’s a marked improvement on the cartoon romances of my childhood, if only because it doesn’t treat the pretty girl exclusively as a prize for the hero to win.

“…when it rains, you put on a coat.”

In any case, the romance takes a backseat to the film’s two primary relationships, between Flint and a pair of good and evil father figures. Tim Lockwood is a blue-collar shopkeeper, looking far more at home chumming sardines with a giant grinder than dragging a mouse across a computer screen in an attempt to email his son a file. He doesn’t understand his son’s technological pursuits. To make this personal, my own father was my technological guru growing up, living through a 40-year IT career that took him from room-sized computers to the very first smartphones (I still remember using his work Blackberry to perform a web search during a power outage in 2003, and the very concept blew my mind). A decade into my own IT career (film critic has been my side-hustle for the same duration), and with my dad now retired, I’ll chat with him about SaaS and cloud deployment and 3D-printing and Deepfakes and VR bomb defusal games and wandering through museum collections on Google Streetview, and while he can more or less follow the thread of what I’m saying, if I were to ask him to do any of it himself, he’d basically be starting from scratch. I also – at his request – helped him wire up an alkaline bath to a battery charger in order to electrochemically strip rust off a coal cart wheel that he found and dug up from a mining site that he personally located and blazed a trail to, because many of the old tricks are still the best, and my dad’s still pretty cool. But that was the pace of technological progress even in 2009, and it’s only gotten more rapid and bizarre in the meantime. Tim is emblematic of both a generational separation with his son, as well as a personal one. This is not a kid that an old salt like Tim could ever speak to using anything but fishing metaphors. The film takes this to hilarious excess when Sam wires him up with the Monkey Thought Translator so he can finally give a heartfelt speech to his son. Yet another cliché, amusingly subverted.

Can a metaphor be so transparent that it ceases to be a metaphor? We do have a machine that turns water into cheeseburgers at the expense of catastrophic climate change – it’s called a cow. And after all that I’ve seen in the past decade (in which we’ve done almost literally nothing to improve our response to climate change), it’s tempting to scream, THE MACHINE IS CAPITALISM AND IT WILL SWALLOW US ALL LIKE THE BLAND SARDINES WE ARE. But…there are rat-parrots. And a “dange-ometer”. This film is dire, yes, but it’s also unsubtle with its imagery, and relentlessly silly. In both of my 2009 write-ups of this film, I described its overconsumption allegory as a bit basic, although curiously, in less than three months, I went from “it may feel to some like a missed opportunity” to “it’s one of the many ways in which the film shows respect for its audience”. I also credited its running gags with lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings. This prophecy proved apt. Obvious metaphors stacked with smart running gags add up to small acts of faith on the part of a creator, and they tend to keep the viewer coming back for another helping. As for “basic”, I’ll repeat what I said in ’09, and still believe: Not every film needs to be WALL-E. And I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which of the two Blu-rays I’ve watched more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs"

“This was not well thought out.”

PS: Since I was way too proud of my “Tiffany’s in Akron” barb above, it seems only fair that should plug the real Tiffany’s in Akron, which looks legitimately scrumptious.

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