It would have been very easy to make a terrible movie out of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. The simple children's book by Jodi and Ron Barrett, a staple in my first-grade library and probably yours as well, is essentially an expanded edition the "If All the Raindrops Were Lemondrops and Gumdrops" song, a child wish-fulfillment fantasy about a world in which the most delicious junk food falls from the sky like rain.
All you'd have to do is throw in some goofy food sight gags, a lot of toilet humor about what comes out the other end, and wrangle in some feel-good messages about family, or being yourself, or whatever seems hot these days. But instead of going the easy route, Sony picked Chris Miller and Phil Lord to make the movie, creating an animated film that, like Monsters vs. Aliens earlier this year, is far funnier than it had any right to be.
Using CGI animation to play with caricature rather than realism, Cloudy leaps away from a fairly boilerplate premise early on to become an absurdist, hilarious, hugely energetic adventure. Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader, mostly doing the earnest hero thing) lives in the tiny North Atlantic island town of Swallow Falls, where the collapse of the sardine industry has left virtually the entire town depressed and unemployed. An avid inventor since childhood, Flint spends his days fiddling in his makeshift lab and disappointing his dad (James Caan), a man so stern his thick eyebrows stand in for the eyes himself. Flint thinks he's failed again when his food-creation machine leaps off into orbit, but when the next rainfall brings perfectly formed cheeseburgers, a media blitz and the town's revival follow quickly.
All sorts of colorful characters stand to benefit from the falling food, from the greedy and increasingly corpulent mayor (Bruce Campbell, in one of many inspired bits of casting) to spunky weathergirl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), who is a closet nerd just like Flint, but tries to hide her smarts behind girlish giggles and TV-ready looks. Less happy with the changes are "Baby" Brent (Andy Samberg), the icon of the sardine industry who is replaced by Flint as the town's favorite son, and local cop Earl Devereaux (Mr. T-- again, hilarious), who usually knows Flint is up to no good even if he can't quite prove it.
Flint's coming-of-age story, his inevitable romance with Sam, and the town's realization that food constantly falling from the sky isn't always a good thing, all fit snugly into classic narrative tropes that don't get much stretching here. What's delightful about the movie are dozens of little things, from the way panicked townspeople run frantically from increasingly giant food to every single line uttered by Mr. T. Lord and Miller, the creators of the short-lived and bizarre MTV series Clone High, bring a TV writer's sensibility to the movie, stacking jokes upon jokes until even small gestures can become funny. It's not just clever writing, but the kind of ballsy, caricature-pushing animation that the Warner Bros. shorts mastered decades ago. Chuck Jones would probably be proud.
The first credit in the opening title sequence calls Cloudy "A film by a lot of people," immediately giving the sense that its two young directors are as amazed as you are that they've pulled it off. That generous, seat-of-the-pants spirit fills the entire movie, giving Cloudy that sense of childlike wonder that countless other animated movies have proved nearly impossible to pull off. At some point during the film I stopped writing down the best and silliest jokes and just went with it, guffawing with everyone else when one character gets turned into a walking man-chicken, or a talking monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, of all people, fulfills his lifelong dream of attacking a fleet of Gummi Bears. It's kind of like having a fantastic dream that's impossible to recount for anyone else. You really just have to see it for yourself.