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FILM REVIEW: Feast for the Eyes Starving for a Better Script
BY PETER T. CHATTAWAY
One of the nicer surprises on the big screen these last few years was the original Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Unlike certain animated features that strive for a kind of photo-naturalistic realism, Cloudy, which concerned a young inventor named Flint Lockwood (voice of Bill Hader) whose ability to make food out of almost nothing quickly gets out of hand, was delightfully cartoony and consistently inventive to boot.
What’s more, the film had positive things to say about father-son relationships, the value of intelligence (for boys and girls alike) and the dangers posed by pollution and the industrialization of food — all without being too on the nose about it, and all without sacrificing the sheer fun of seeing giant pancakes fall from the sky or evil Gummi Bears come to life.
The sequel has at least some of the original film’s creative spark: If you’ve seen the trailers, then you already know about the “foodimals,” i.e. quasi-animal life forms based on tacos, cheeseburgers and other food items that have somehow evolved on the island where the first film took place — and I’m happy to say that the trailers only hint at the imagination on display here. But in other ways, the sequel lapses into certain unfortunate conventions that the first movie avoided, and the new movie is all the poorer for it.
For starters, the new film has a bad guy, and by that I mean not just a clueless, selfish man who can’t control his appetites like the first film’s mayor, but an actual out-and-out villain.
Where the first film was largely about the bad consequences that sometimes follow good intentions — and the need to take responsibility for those consequences — the new film revolves around an evil plot masterminded by Chester V (Will Forte), a Steve Jobs-like tech guru who wants to exploit the food catastrophe caused by Flint’s inventions in the first film.
Chester is a fairly goofy figure, at first. His most famous invention is not a smartphone or a tablet, but a “Food Bar” that will soon be coming out in a version 8.0; his rubbery limbs glide through the air as though they were tracing invisible lines; and he replicates himself with multiple holograms that carry out all sorts of superfluous errands (one of them even exercises, as though that would somehow help the real guy). But there is still a threat of real violence about the guy, especially as the film reaches its climax.
Second, the film has way more below-the-belt humor than the first film had. There was, admittedly, a quick gag involving the monkey Steve’s “chocolate” ice cream in the first film, but not much more than that. The sequel, on the other hand, is peppered throughout with various references to flatulence, people being hit in the groin by objects, people bungee-jumping with their elastic underwear and so forth.
In one scene, Flint innocently proposes finding a hidden object by wearing a special pair of mechanical shorts and following the navigational light beam that would emerge from the, uh, front area. And then there’s a key plot device that is referred to — frequently — as the “B.S. USB” drive.
Some of these jokes are handled fairly subtly — I suspect most of them went over my 7-year-old daughter’s head — but still, the fact that they’re in there at all, and in such numbers, brings to mind what happened to the Hoodwinked franchise: When I interviewed Cory Edwards, director of the original film, he was proud of the fact that his film had steered clear of such cheap and easy gags, but then the sequel, directed by someone else, came out a few years later and went for those gags in spades.
Cloudy 2 seems derivative of other recent cartoons, too. It begins with a prologue in which we learn that Chester was one of Flint’s childhood heroes, and the way Chester ends up turning against Flint and his friends is not unlike how Charles Muntz turned against Carl Fredericksen in Pixar’s Up. Similarly, a number of the living food items bear more than a passing resemblance to the Minions in Despicable Me: They have little if any intelligible dialogue but lots of body language, and a small group of pickles in particular are prone to squabbling amongst themselves just like the little guys who work for Gru.
Plot-wise, the second Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs harks back to the plot of the second Jurassic Park: In both cases, while the first film treated some of its fantastic creations as monsters in a story about the perils posed by a science that doesn’t know its limits, the second film has the main characters go back to visit the creatures created by that science, and it reveals that these creatures actually love each other and have families that should cause us to feel protective of these creatures.
However, where Jurassic Park allowed for the fact that some animals do eat other animals (has there ever been anything as simultaneously terrifying and awe-inspiring as the sight of a T-Rex teaching its offspring to kill?), Cloudy 2 mostly avoids anything that might complicate our own attachment to the creatures on display.
Indeed, the film almost seems to argue for vegetarianism when one of its characters declares that the “foodimals” are “living creatures” and, thus, it would be wrong to eat them — though no one objects when Flint’s father, Tim (James Caan), goes fishing for sardines.
Curiously, the human families get shortchanged somewhat in the new film. The first film had two key father-son relationships, and one of them is all but ignored in the new film, as policeman Earl Devereaux (voiced by Terry Crews rather than Mr. T this time) leaves his boy behind to join Flint and the gang back on the island. As for Flint and his own father ... well, Tim reluctantly agrees to sit on the boat and wait while Flint and his friends have their adventure, so there’s not a whole lot of interaction there either.
Suffice it to say that most of this film’s characters — including Flint’s meteorologist girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) and former sardine mascot Brent McHale (Andy Samberg) — had already resolved the issues that were plaguing their characters in the first film, and the new film never finds new ways for them to grow. Their stories simply don’t resonate this time.
Still, that being said, there is (no pun intended) a real feast for the eyes here, and it’s fun to tag along as the characters hike over a lasagna landscape or trudge through a syrup bog. There is some real creativity on display here; it’s just a shame that so little of it found its way into the script.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogs about film at FilmChat.
Content Advisory: Cartoony peril and action; mild rude humor. Might be fine for older kids.