October 01, 2013

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 Subs Out Ethical Standards For A Side Order Of Hilarious Food Puns

"There's a leek in the boat!"
I unabashedly love the first Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.  I have no real familiarity with the original book, but I first saw the film while working security during a very advanced screening.  In fact, it was so early on that most of the film's final 20 minutes had yet to be animated, consisting mostly of pencil sketches and storyboards.  But even then I could tell there was something special going on.  The film is both incredibly earnest and surprisingly mature, espousing the virtues of true geekiness while exposing the dangers of fame and reputation, all driven by a great father-son relationship, some gorgeous animation and a razor sharp wit.  It's a pretty big departure from the source material in almost every way, but it's so funny and charming that you just can't help but fall in love with it.

A big part of that film's success comes from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who followed Cloudy up with their first live action film 21 Jump Street, a.k.a. the movie that will make you love Channing Tatum forever.  Sadly, the two did not return to helm this sequel, which was enough to give my excitement serious pause.  But most of the original cast was back (Mr. T is replaced by Terry Crews doing a Mr. T impression, so it's pretty much a wash) and I absolutely adored the pitch, that the gang returns to their island home and discovers that Flint Lockwood's machine has created a crazy new ecosystem of food-based creatures.  Basically it's The Lost World with foodimals.  Sounds great!  However, as the film neared release, a swarm of tepid reviews started to pour in and my anticipation started to wane once more.

Then I got emailed an offer from Fandago: buy a ticket online to see Cloudy 2 and I'd get a free digital copy of the first film the next day.


Cloudy 2 is okay.  Kids will flip for it, especially if they're fans of the original.  Every square inch of every single frame of the film is packed with a thousand moving pieces, almost dizzyingly so.  It flirts with visual information overload, but I suspect that won't really bother the target demographic.  There are some great new characters, particularly Barry the strawberry, a tribe of dill pickles and Barb the talking ape who, much like a real ape, can be at times menacing and sympathetic thanks to some fine vocal work from Kristen Schaal.  And so long as the film is doing its Jurassic Park thing and cracking non-stop animal/food puns, ("Shrimpanzees!") then it's a lot of fun.

The problem lies mostly in the villain.  Chester V, all but absent from the film's marketing, is a sort of diabolical Steve Jobs voiced by Will Forte.  As the host of a Bill Nye-style science show, Chester V was Flint Lockwood's childhood idol.  So when he arrives in Swallow Falls and offers Flint the chance to come work for him and become an orange vested "thinkquanot," it's literally a dream come true.  But Chester V secretly wants to find Flint's food-making machine with the unwieldy acronym (kudos for keeping that around and using it A LOT) and use it for his own nefarious purpose.  He therefore manipulates Flint to that end, feeding him lies and turning the wacky young inventor against his friends.  First of all, Chester V is the kind of mustache twirling (or in this case, goatee stroking) villain that grows tiresome after a while.  He's evil for the sake of evil and that's all there is to it.  That's boring.  Moreover, he feels like a tremendously wasted opportunity.  One of the strongest aspects of the first film is the relationship between Flint and his father Tim, a burly man of few words and fewer facial expressions who loves fishing and just doesn't understand his son's love of science and invention.  What Tim doesn't realize is that Flint is really just trying to win his father's approval, especially after the death of Flint's mother.  Watching them struggle to find common ground really helps to ground the movie in a very simple but also very lovely way.  The same could have been true of the relationship between Flint and Chester V.  What do you do when you meet your lifelong hero only to discover that he's not the man you always believed him to be?  How do you react when your professional ideal turns out to be a sham?

Sadly, the script (co-written by John Francis Daley of Freaks And Geeks fame) is simply not interested in exploring these ideas.  What's worse, Flint has been disturbingly re-imagined as some kind of idiot savant who's capable of inventing remarkable devices but incapable of understanding any kind of basic human behavior.  Whereas Flint was previously a brilliant scientist who let his excitement and imagination run a bit wild, now he's suddenly naive to the point where can't even fathom the idea that Chester V might have an ulterior motive until the guy literally pushes Flint off a big rock candy mountain.  It feels like they're really just trying to cater towards a younger age bracket this time around, but it's frustrating to watch because it ultimately makes Flint feel dumber.  Before he had a strong sense of childlike wonder.  Now he's just a child.  It's a feeling that's reinforced by a scene late in the film where it's revealed that the foodimals consider Flint to be a sort of God.  It sets up the interesting notion that, as their creator, Flint might actually be responsible for the island's inhabitants.  But it's never properly addressed and Flint's ultimate decision to protect the foodimals stems less from a place of responsibility and more from the fact that they're actually all pretty cute and cuddly.  It's a real shame, as it feels like there was a (very obvious) way to elevate this story simply by making Chester V a multi-dimensional character, a good guy who's doing a bad thing.  As presented, Chester V has clearly been coasting off the inventions of others for years, and that's exactly what he wants to do with Flint's food device.  If Flint had truly embraced the ethical responsibilities of science and then used that knowledge to redeem Chester V rather than just defeat him, I think it would have made for a far more interesting and satisfying film.  It's cute as it is, but it also feels like kids aren't gonna walk out of the theater having actually learned any kind of real life lesson.

Despite these shortcomings, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 is still largely an enjoyable ride, even though it does fall predictably short of the original.  If nothing else, watching the second movie to get a copy of the first movie feels like a perfectly reasonable tax.

I'll pay it gladly.

Title: Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Director: Cody Cameron, Kris Pearn
Starring: Bill Hader, Ana Faris, Andy Samburg, Will Forte, James Caan, Benjamin Bratt, Kristen Schaal, Terry Crews, Neal Patrick Harris
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

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