Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Review

The Film

I have nothing but admiration for Pixar’s Wall-E and its push for realism, and I’ll even grudgingly commend the heavily flawed 9 for its attempt to tell a darker, more mature story than we’re used to with North American animation, but it always strikes me as something of a missed opportunity that so few animated movies, CG or traditional, fail to take advantage of the innate opportunities afforded by their medium - namely the opportunity to indulge in outrageous, broad acts of comedy that would be impossible in the real world. To that end, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs may very well bear the distinction of being the first CG animated feature to not be ashamed of being a cartoon.

The film is based on children’s picture book by Judi Barrett, which I haven’t read, but I’m led to believe that the adaptation is an extremely loose one. Writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who made their less than auspicious debut in the world of animation with the MTV series Clone High) use the patently absurd premise of an eccentric inventor creating a machine that causes food to rain down from the sky as a springboard for what is essentially ninety minutes of wall to wall jokes, the vast majority of them very funny indeed. It’s not, however, the written comedy that is its greatest strength but rather the visual humour, much of it physical and revolving around its characters behaving and moving in uniquely cartoony ways. They contort themselves, squash and stretch, and make unique facial expressions in manners that have far more in common with the mid-20th century golden age of animation (and its brief renaissance in the early 90s) than any of the CG movies that have been produced since Toy Story changed the animated landscape in 1995. (The presence of former Ren & Stimpy artists Chris Reccardi and Carey Yost on the design side of things is readily apparent throughout.)

Meatballs appears to have been made first and foremost with the intention of having as much fun with the setup as possible, and its complete lack of pretentiousness, plus the feelings of joy that it elicits from its bouncy tempo and gleeful silliness, are its greatest strengths. It’s a shame, therefore, that the writers feel the need to crowbar in, with all the subtlety of an icepick to the brain, the sort of unconvincing pathos that seems to be considered mandatory in all animated features. Although Pixar frequently makes the same self-affirming statements, they do so with considerably more tact, working them into the plot in an organic manner. In Meatballs, the narrative comes to a screeching halt each time a character stops, usually in the middle of a life or death catastrophe, to wax lyrical about being proud of who you are, always following your dream, and so on. We’ve heard these “life lessons” a hundred times in a hundred animated movies, and their jarring insertion prevents the film from being the immersive experience it could have been.

The sentimentally may seem jarring and forced, but it doesn’t prevent the film from being a knock-out hit, and while the releases of Up, Coraline, and The Princess and the Frog made 2009 an unusually great year for animation, Meatballs looks far from poor compared to those excellent achievements in the medium. (And of course there’s also Ponyo, which I’ve yet to see.) And while those two are both better films on the whole, Meatballs is ironically the one that makes me feel the most positive about the current state of animation. Let me just state once again that I adore Pixar for what they do. They have produced some of the very best films of the last decade and are still second to none in the field of feature animation. However, even their staunchest defenders will probably agree that they rarely stray far from their comfort zone, and it doesn’t help that most of the other CG houses are intent in aping everything they do, usually with the end result having only a fraction of the quality. A movie like Meatballs, which forges its own path in an industry where experimentation and originality aren’t exactly encouraged, is to be applauded if for no other reason than that it provides a welcome change of pace and provides a glimpse at what computer generated animation could be like if the studios would stop constantly retreading the same ground. That it’s one of the most laugh out loud hilarious films of 2009 is the icing on the cake.

Oh, and kudos to whoever was responsible for finally casting Anna Faris in a role in which she doesn’t play a stereotypical blonde airhead.

The Disc

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is presented in an AVC encode preserving the film’s original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and it looks pretty nice on the whole. The film has a somewhat soft look which I suspect is a deliberate stylistic choice to make the CG look less harsh and artificial. (Pixar and Disney tend to go for the same approach.) By and large, this is a nice presentation, although the softness - deliberate or otherwise - means that it doesn’t scream “demo material” in the way that some titles do. More problematic are the compression artefacts that pop up in some of the busier crowd scenes.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track sounds excellent, making great use of all the available channels to create a deep and immersive soundscape, particularly during the action-packed climax. An audio descriptive track is also provided, in addition to English, English HoH and Hindi subtitles.

A separate DVD version is also included along with the BD. The quality is, as expected, markedly inferior, with the lower resolution and the presence of some heavy filtering hampering detail. The DVD included here is also completely bare-bones, with no extras to be found of any kind, although it’s my understanding that the stand-alone DVD release replicates everything from the BD except Splat Mode (see below).

The Extras

The truly moronic Splat Mode allows you to use the coloured buttons on your remote to throw food at the screen as the film plays, which, as you can imagine, is entertaining for all of five seconds. Slightly more impressive is Flint’s Food Fight Game, a Space Invaders type of game which has you using a spaceship to blast food out of the sky.

The audio commentary teams writers/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller with voice actor Bill Hader and is lightweight but enjoyable enough to listen to. This tone is carried over into the cheery but generic 11-minute making-of EPK and 13-minute featurette on the voice cast.

Also included are two extended scenes with a total running time of just under three minutes, the first of which is presented in a rough, unlit form, and two early development scenes, both in storyboard form. Eight minutes’ worth of production progression demonstrations are also provided, with comments from visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow. From an animation aficionado’s point of view, this is probably the most interesting feature on the disc.

Rounding off the package is a music video for the “Raining Sunshine” number that plays over the end credits, which somehow manages to make an already irritating number downright infuriating. The video can be played in an optional sing-along mode, and also includes a brief making-of featurette. These are the only standard definition features on the disc.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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