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Revisiting the Weird and Wonderful Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
In appreciation of the film that established Phil Lord and Chris Miller as major voices in the animation industry.
This past year was a big one for Hollywood triple-hyphenates Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who not only produced Cocaine Bear and Strays (now streaming on Peacock!), but co-wrote and executive produced the animated blockbuster Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The creative duo have spent the last two decades building up their live action projects as writers and directors, but their true origin and continuing passion remains animation.
Their first animation project of note was MTV's Clone High, which gained a fervent cult following, and was revived just this year after a 21-year hiatus. They followed that series up by embarking on six-year journey to bring the beloved children's book by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, to the big screen as an animated comedy.
Easier said than done, as the duo was initially fired as the screenwriters on the project. They were then rehired and almost fired again when Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal wasn't pleased with the screenplay's lack of emotional storyline. Having already spent years on the project, the pair fixed the issue with a last minute scramble that elevated a minor character in the script to the father of the protagonist... and voila! Cloudy became a very spicy meatball for Sony Pictures Animation and Lord and Miller when it was released in 2009. Both a box office and critical hit, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (streaming now on Peacock) ushered in a new era of CG animation that embraced a highly-stylized aesthetic, surreal visuals, and the non-stop comedic delivery that has since become Lord and Miller's signature writing style.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an under-appreciated, modern animation classic
If you look back at 2009, it was a very good year for outside-the-box animation. Along with Cloudy came Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, and Disney's last theatrical 2D animated film, The Princess and the Frog. At the time, Cloudy was only the third release for the fledgling Sony Pictures Animation, and its success helped cement the studio as a hitmaker, following the the solid openings of Open Season and Surf's Up. With Lord and Miller doing script punch-ups on both of those films too, Cloudy finally gave them the opportunity to develop their animation screenplay chops and ingest and process Pascal's note that a funny script was great, but a funny script that also made you feel something was even better.
As such, it is the relationship between aspiring scientist Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and his brusque fisherman father, Tim (James Caan), that is a primary reason why Cloudy hits so hard in the feels. Flint's doubts about his talents are tempered by the support of his dad, which helps expand the film beyond just being a fantastic sci-fi film about an incredible invention — the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, or FLDSMDFR — into a heartwarming story about a father and son who don't exactly get one another, but love one another.
Chewandswallow: The weirdest town you want to live in
Cloudy is also a great ensemble piece that invests the audience in the isolated island population of Swallow Falls (renamed to Chewandswallow after the food comes falling down). Along with Flint and Tim, the screenplay takes time to introduce us to the eccentric townspeople who add so much to the overall comedy of the piece. Mr. T's fantastic vocal performance as empathetic Officer Earl Devereaux and his signature bark of "Flint Lockwood!" becomes one of many recurring jokes in the film. Bruce Campbell serves up his slimy best as the corrupt Mayor Shelbourne. And Andy Samberg's voicing of the eternal man-child, "Baby" Brent McHale, ups the bar for town idiot characters. Last but not least is Anna Faris' sunny weather woman "Sam" Sparks, who reports on the phenomenon created by Flint's invention, and becomes his love interest.
Food puns and set pieces for days
For those who appreciate linguist comedy, Cloudy remains a powerhouse pun factory of food jokes. Instead of just vocally laying out the groaners, Lord and Miller augment their food quips with some incredible food related CGI set pieces that underscore the culinary absurdity of it all. From spaghetti tornados to food-alanches, every escalating FLDSMDFR disaster begets a dire new gastronomic crisis for Flint, Sam, and the town. The visual jokes fly fast and furious with so many clever visual punchlines, you have to watch the movie multiple times to catch all the jokes crammed into every frame.
Nominated for a Golden Globe and an Annie Award for Best Animated Feature Film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs earned the respect of the animation industry and Hollywood in general. It also firmly established Lord and Miller as fresh new voices in animation, who have since cemented themselves as two of the most impactful creatives helping push the medium to new heights.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is streaming on Peacock now.