There's probably someone in Hollywood whose only job is to determine whether a film can say it's "based" on a book, "loosely based," or "inspired by" it. And I wonder what this person was thinking when he allowed Columbia/Sony Pictures to say that "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" was "based on" the children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett. Fans of the book will see enough big changes to where they might think "loosely" was more appropriate. And heck, the whole tone is different.
The Barrett's book was a folksy story that began, "We were all sitting around the big kitchen table," and as Grandpa flipped pancakes while he was making breakfast, the narrator, her mother, and brother Henry started thinking what it would be like if food "dropped like rain from the sky." That was all the cue that Grandpa needed to tell one of his tall tales--this time about a tiny town named Chewandswallow that was normal in every respect except for the weather. In that town, it rained soup, it rained fried eggs, it rained mashed potatoes, it rained hamburgers. You never knew what was going to come down. Well sir, it started to get out of hand, with larger portions and all, and something needed to be done . . . and done in the tradition of American folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. But it was all a story within a story--a testimony to Grandpa's storytelling powers--and the foodfall was a natural, magical phenomenon.
In the screenplay, the folksiness and magic are replaced by manic action and science. Phil Lord ("Clone High") and Chris Miller ("Shrek the Third") got rid of Grandpa and the family and turned the tall tale into a story about a boy genius named Flint who grows up to be the crackpot inventor of a machine that turns water into food. And the town is relocated to an island, where the only thing they've had to eat is sardines, so of course they welcome the change of menu. And Flint's heart is in the right place.
My son was a huge fan of the book, so much so that he announced with some disdain that he wouldn't be watching the film version with us. "I've seen trailers for it," he said, "and it looks totally different. I just don't want to be disappointed."
Well sir, to make a long story short, he watched that film with the rest of the family, and darned if he didn't say he'd give it three out of four stars. My daughter, who had no such prejudices, said she'd award it FOUR stars. Maybe even FIVE.
And the adults? We thought it was better than expected for a 90-minute film that was based on a 32-page book that takes no more than 10 minutes to read . . . and that's if you do it with flair. But it seemed excessively (and unnecessarily) manic, and the shift to boy-inventor is so familiar that we've seen it in films like "Meet the Robinsons" and countless others. You'll recognize other elements from other films as well. But there are enough funny moments to delight the children, and enough "in" jokes to appeal to adults--including a "Baby Brent" poster child for sardines who's an obvious reference to the old Coppertone billboards with the dog pulling down the little girl's bottom. And what's not to like about a sight gag where a giant fortune cooking precedes an even bigger ear of corn, and the fortune that pops out of it reads "You are about to be crushed by a giant ear of corn."
Given the 32 pages the screenwriters had to work with, I'd have to admit that they did a pretty good job of expanding the concept and making it work. It may be right off the rack, but the father (James Caan) who doesn't understand his inventor son (Bill Hader) at least adds a subplot that ties into the main narrative thread, as does the inclusion of a newscaster who goes by the name of Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) but is at heart the same kind of geeky nerd as the hero. In a making-of feature, the writers and directors said that they were intentionally going for an animated replication of familiar action-movie tropes, like the mayor of the town, the tough local cop, the perky but underappreciated newscaster, the idealistic inventor. And it's true. We have seen the mayor before in "Jaws," the newscaster in "The China Syndrome," and the tough cop in virtually every movie. Not all of their improvisations are successful, though. The whole thing about the town's mayor (Bruce Campbell) turning into a blimp (because of eating all the supersized portions), wheeling around in his own indolence and gluttony, then turning sinister is just a little too "Wall-E." Same with the over-the-top cop (Mr. T, believe it or not) who seems more of a caricature than the others, and again reminds you of countless other movies. It's recognizable moments from those other films that pull you out of the experience. Still, there's enough here to make for an entertaining family movie.
The concept itself is so visually fantastic that the artistic design and rendering of the food falling from the heavens looks a bit like a video game, yet it's just interesting enough to keep you from getting up to follow those subliminal messages (Paul is dead . . . grab some salami) and raid the refrigerator. The voice talents do a nice job, too, of selling their characters. And the humor? The directors steered mostly clear of bodily function jokes, and parent should appreciate that. And some of the gags resonate for any age group, like Flint's monkey thought translator or his spray-on shoes inventions.
The film's shortcomings are that relentless manic pacing and tone and those plot devices that seem more like wholesale borrowings than allusions or homages. As for strengths, it's the visuals and animation, along with great voice talent support and some pretty effective expansion of the original story. The test for a decent family film is whether the kids want to watch it again, and both of mine were ready for a rerun the very next day. Me? I could go at least six months without a craving for a spaghetti and meatball disaster.
"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" is the latest film to play 3-D in theaters but arrive on Blu-ray in 2-D. Visually, it isn't what you'd call stunning, but I think impressive is fair to say. It's an eye-candy movie that's infused with Indiana Jones-style action--with at least one scene involving jagged peanut brittle that will remind you of Indy's adventures. The CGI effects, especially of the troublesome clouds and sinister food-weather, are quite good--more interesting, in fact, than the way most of the characters are drawn.
"Cloudy" features an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and the 1080p picture looks quite good. Maybe it has something to do with downsizing from 3-D to 2-D, but the film which was originally shown in theaters at 2.39:1 aspect ratio is presented in a 2.35:1 ratio on this release. But colors are nicely saturated, edges are adequately delineated, and black levels tend to vary. In some scenes they're a little low. But the amount of detail is very good, especially for a film that went through the 3-D process.
The audio is a robust French or English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with plenty of rear-speaker involvement. It's the audio that partially drives the sense of this film's frenetic personality. Low frequency notes have a nice rumble to them, and the highs are crisp and airy. Dialogue sometimes gets smushed by the effects and music, but this is a film that prioritizes action, not character development or dialogue. An additional audio option is in Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The box touts "Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy," but be warned that the Digital Copy is for PSP download only. Rather than a third disc, the customer pops the Blu-ray into the PlayStation to effect the download.
The novelty wears off pretty quickly, but kids will like the "Splat Mode!" way of watching the film, which allows viewers to zero in on a target and splat it with various food items. Press one button to clean the screen and another to change foods or exit. As I said, it's fun for a while, but then what? Same with a Food Fight game that's set up like the old Atari Space Invaders game, where food rains down in torrential rows and it's your job to shoot them before you get squashed by a big pancake, meatball or gummy bear. Those are the kid-friendly features, and my kids liked them.
As for the rest, the directors are joined by Hader for a full-length commentary that reflects how young these guys are and how relatively inexperienced they are at directing feature films. They talk a lot about how awestruck they were that they could work with James Caan ("Wow, I'm having an argument with James Caan") or Mr. T ("We didn't know what to call him, so we called him "T"). The trio has a good time along the way, cracking jokes and laughing--which is to say that it doesn't bog down in discussions of the technical aspects of animated filmmaking. They cover the bases without getting too film-school.
The two main featurettes are "A Recipe for Success: The Making of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (10 min.) and "Key Ingredients: The Voice Talents of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" (12.5 min.). The making-of feature wastes too much time on a Ludwig von Drake intro and narration in which the directors do the metaphor thing using food and a binder as props. It's a little sophomoric, to tell the truth, and that's unfortunately what you walk away with. The voice talents featurette is better, as we get to see extensive split-screen footage of the actors in action--much more than usual for features like this--and we get to hear them out of the booth as well. Faris, for example, tells how this was a dream come true because a) she had a copy of the book when she was little, and it was one of her favorites; b) she actually wanted to be a weather girl when she grew up; and c) as an actress she's always wanted to do an animated movie.
"iCarly" fans will enjoy the three ways to watch the Miranda Cosgrove "Raining Sunshine" music video: straight, as a sing-along (with bouncing food, instead of balls), or as an "Inside Look" behind the scenes as they're filming it, with Cosgrove's interview spliced into takes of the video as music plays in the background.
Rounding out the bonus features is a "Feeding America" PSA that runs a minute, trailers, five progression reels that run about a minute each, a very brief piece on "Make It Rain Food," two extended scenes, two early development scenes, and BD-Live connectivity/features.
Watching it again with commentary makes me feel a little kinder to this film than when I saw it cold, but "Cloudy" still hovers in the 6-7 range. On sunny days I could probably give it a 7 and sleep just fine. But today it's a 6. Even food weather, it turns out, is unpredictable.