Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (**1/2)

Directed by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn

When you consider that we live in a movie culture where Hollywood has so desperately run out of ideas that they're making movies out of 500-word children's books, you have to appreciate the effort put forth to make a farce as charming as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It's maniacal commitment to Looney Tunes-style insanity felt refreshing compared to both the sentimentality of Pixar and the cynical, trying-to-hard-to-be-cool-ness of Dreamworks animation. It's zaniness had little in common with the original book's modest contrast of a normal everyday town being blessed with giant food falling from the sky, but it had a unique voice. It's easily the best thing that Sony Pictures Animation produced, so I guess it would be a no-brainer that it would produce a sequel. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 has the same formula of most children's movie sequels - take a winning recipe and add some extra, sugary toppings - but doesn't leave you feeling as bloated as it could have.

Your hero is still Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), amateur inventor and son of expert sardine fisherman Tim Lockwood (James Caan). The sequel begins at the exact moment that the first one leaves off, Flint has just saved his hometown of Swallow Falls from his invention, the FLDSMDFR (stands for "Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator" - and pronounced in all it's constipated, non-vowel glory). The FLDSMDFR, which can turn water into food, nearly destroyed the world by disrupting weather patterns and plaguing major cities with damaging food storms. With his invention now turned off, Flint is finally able to turn toward a career in invention. It starts successfully when he gets a job at Live Corp in San Franjose, which is run by celebrity inventor, Chester V (Will Forte), Flint's childhood idol. But Chester has more sinister plans in hiring Flint, and hopes to use the FLDSMDFR to his advantage in ways that Flint doesn't know.

Chester informs Flint that the FLDSMDFR is actually still running and the food has actually evolved into living creatures, including zeppelin-sized cheeseburger spiders and baby-sized strawberries that can kill you with cuteness. Flint must find the FLDSMFDR to stop the creatures from making their way off of Swallow Falls and into the rest of civilized society to create the havoc he narrowly avoided in the first film. For this mission, he brings along his usual crew, including former weather reporter and current girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), muscleman police officer Earl Deveraux (Terry Crews), Swallow Falls celebrity and manchild Brent McHale (Andy Sandberg), stoic camera/renaissance man Manny (Benjamin Bratt), and of course his lab partner and monkey, Steve (Neil Patrick Harris). Tim tags along as well when his boat proves to be the only way back to Swallow Falls. Together, they encounter the menacing creatures that inhabit the island, but soon find that these creatures have created a community, and may not present any real danger to humans after all.

One of the additions of this second installment is the presence of Barb, Chester V's super-smart, super-trained chimpanzee with the intelligence and motor skills of a human. Barb is voiced by Kristen Schaal, a talented comedienne who's yet to really find a true niche in movies an TV. Her voicework on the show Bob's Burgers is terrific as is that show as a whole, but she nearly ruined the last two seasons of 30 Rock, one of my all-time favorites. As Barb, we see Schaal at what she does best: a unique, animated (no pun intended) voice that understands that her high-pitched, babyish tone is a powerful tool. Barb is one of the few new parts of Cloudy 2 that really worked for me, as well as the super-adorable strawberries that hit just the right level of sweetness that never really feels shoved down your throat. The charm of the original gang is still in tact, and Flint and Tom's complicated father/son relationship still works as the film's sole source of sentiment. I just wish we spent as much time with them as we did in the first one and less time with a giant hip-potato-mus.

The jokes still have the same edge to them, but they arrive with less rapidity. As the characters develop relationships with these "foodimals", they start feeling conflicted about turning the FLDSMDFR off and ending their existence. It made me start wondering if these same characters feel equally conflicted about the, you know, actual animals that are slaughtered and processed for their food on a daily basis. I also had a bit of trouble getting over the fact that the world's most famous inventor, Chester V, is famous for inventing an energy bar. But that's really a nitpick more than anything, and Cloudy 2 is much less brain-numbing than most of the children's fare at the multiplexes (including another Sony Pictures Animation franchise, The Smurfs). And while I don't grade any movies on a curve, I will give the two Cloudy films credit for actually working to create a legitimate story around sparse source material.

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