Since its earliest days of development, the value of most computer animation was judged by how accurately it represented or substituted for reality: are skin tones believable, are textures authentic, is motion natural or smooth? But at least as far as animated movies are concerned, many (including lots of audience members) have forgotten that many of the medium's best examples were ones where abstraction and exaggeration were a big part (if not the biggest) of their artistry; notwithstanding feature-length classics like Snow White or Dumbo, filmmakers like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery entertained audiences by expanding their imaginations with punch lines, characters and even worlds that were anything but realistic.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is the most cartoonish animated film I've seen in a long time, and I mean that as a compliment. Taking inspiration from Looney Tunes classics, Buster Keaton, and Jerry Bruckheimer movies in equal measures, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have adapted Ron and Judi Barrett's kids book into a true larger-than-life tale, creating a world that scarcely resembles anything that could or would happen, and manages to be all the more exciting because of it.
The film stars Bill Hader (Adventureland) as Flint Lockwood, an amateur inventor who inadvertently creates food-flavored weather when his latest device launches itself into the sky and starts turning clouds into cheeseburgers. Much to the chagrin of local hero 'Baby' Brent (Andy Samberg), not to mention concern of his father, Tim (James Caan), Flint becomes an overnight celebrity, and Mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Campbell) promptly enlists his help resuscitating the former sardine town's economic prospects. But when a comely weather girl with the heart of a nerdy-girl-next-door named Sam Sparks (Anna Faris) begins to question how much food is too much – and when it is, how it will stop – Flint finds himself torn between the new adulation of his fellow citizens and the possibility that they will soon all be swept up in a tornado made of pasta and meatballs.
Suffice it to say that the premise is nothing new, even to animated features: oddball outsider finally finds acceptance but at the expense of his core values. And mind you, I'm not intimately familiar with the Barretts' original book, but I suspect that the narrative of the movie has more to do with the influence of blockbuster epics like Armageddon and Jurassic Park than anything on those printed pages. But for some reason that kind of simplicity works in the Cloudy's favor, if only because it provides such a terrific template for someone to graft onto it the wonderful and bizarre concept of food literally falling from the sky. The truth is, there needs to be a sense or normalcy (again, not to be confused with reality) for that concept to play off of, and Miller and Lord (who also wrote the script) maximize both its conceptual and comedic possibilities with their feverish, subversive creativity.
The animation, meanwhile, manages to be both powerfully simple and meticulously detailed: the characters themselves are crafted from the most basic shapes, resembling googly-eyed muppets or the protagonists of cartoons from the '40s and '50s, but all have a delicate patina of texture and depth that gives them dimensionality. For example, although Faris' character Sam is primarily defined visually by her choice of eyewear and the way she wears her hair (and in a brilliant about-face, considered prettier when she's bespectacled in a ponytail than when she's more cosmopolitan), her cheeks are dotted with freckles and her clothes give her a true, womanly physique. These, quite frankly, are the kinds of details that make characters "real," at least visually speaking; while I've certainly celebrated the virtuosity of images in older animated films, this one seems to know better than to let technique or even just technical considerations get in the way of streamlined character definition and development.
Further, Lord and Miller load these characters with simple, straightforward and compelling problems that pay off in ways that enrich the film's emotional resonance. Flint's distant relationship with his father is certainly at the heart of all of his desperate inventing, but the movie doesn't languish in the moments of their inability to communicate, nor waste time explaining the subtext of their estrangement. Meanwhile, Cloudy again teaches a valuable lesson to young girls about valuing themselves as intelligent people rather than just beautiful ones, and gives even peripheral characters something that the audience can see motivates their behavior, thankfully without pointing it out or bashing viewers over the head with founts of exposition or explanation.
Most of all, though, Cloudy is just freaking funny. My favorite scene in the film is a slightly disturbing, borderline-mean "handheld" point-of-view snowball fight where a newly-liberated Flint decimates children and adults alike with scoops of mint-chocolate chip ice cream, but there are countless moments where Lord and Miller find the right way to make a joke less obvious and more effective. Not unlike the humor of folks like Seth Rogen and the other guys in Judd Apatow's comedic brain trust, much of the movie's best material comes from a place of snarkiness weighted with sincerity, and Lord and Miller (who spent part of their careers working on How I Met Your Mother) manage to find the right balance between momentary punch lines and delayed payoffs in order to create something that works for kids and adults, without much disparity in their relative comprehension or appreciation for what's happening. (Plus, they put a monkey in it, and they're always funny.)
Ultimately, Cloudy With the Chance of Meatballs isn't quite an "event movie" like the Bruckheimer epics from which it takes inspiration, or possibly even the Pixar movies that it competes with. But there's something to be said for a movie that manages to tell you an effective, straightforward story, still shows you a whole bunch of things that you've never seen before, and somehow makes the combination of the two add up to something emotionally meaningful. In fact, this film marks the first time in recent memory I would associate the word cartoonish with a piece of entertainment and not mean it as a criticism. Other filmmakers will almost certainly create worlds more dense, tactile, and faithfully authentic, but Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs works so wonderfully because Miller and Lord understand that it doesn't matter how realistic something is, as long as it's believable.