Tut tut, it looks like a hit for Sony Pictures Animation. Eye-popping and mouth-watering in one, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” spins a 30-page children’s book into a 90-minute all-you-can-laugh buffet, expanding the premise of a town where it rains ketchup and hot dogs to disaster-movie proportions. With drooling tongues in cheek, tyro helmers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (whose only previous directing credit was cult MTV toon “Clone High”) bring a fresh, irreverent sensibility to bigscreen computer animation, using 3D projection to maximize their sky-is-falling scenario. This box office and concession-stand draw should make exhibitors very happy.
Considering Judi and Ron Barrett’s high-concept picture book offers no characters beyond its narrator, Lord and Miller are to be commended for balancing their own originality with respect for the source (nearly all the book’s key images, from a macaroni-headed bystander to the pancake-flattened school, survive the leap to screen). The story opens in Swallow Falls — “a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic” on the map — with Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), a junior inventor whose gadgets have a way of going awry. Flint wants nothing more than to earn his father’s approval, but Dad (James Caan, speaking almost entirely in fishing metaphors) wishes his son would just settle for running the family bait shop.
For years, Swallow Falls thrived on its booming sardine industry; then the world moved on to tastier options, leaving the mayor (Bruce Campbell) with no clue as to how to save the town. Fed up with fish, Flint invents a device that transforms water into any kind of food, and for once, the gizmo actually works (sort of). Launched into the sky above Swallow Falls, the machine sucks in clouds and spits out burgers, bacon and eggs — whatever he wants — showering chow upon the town, which becomes a major tourist destination overnight, changing its name to Chew and Swallow. On hand to document the meteorological anomaly is wannabe weather girl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris).
To deliver the initial meteorological spectacle, “Cloudy” appropriately steals Spielberg’s signature eyes-wide, mouth-ajar reaction shot to build anticipation for a big reveal and repeats it for every major character on the island before finally showing the truly stunning burger-shaped cloud formation. Lord and Miller are savvy pop-culture sponges, synthesizing decades of film and TV viewing into a sensibility thirtysomething parents and their kids will embrace immediately (the casting of Mr. T as the town cop is particularly inspired, as is Mark Mothersbaugh’s geek-chic score, positioned at the intersection of Bruckheimer fare and science fair).
Aesthetically, the plain character designs may not seem much to look at, but their elastic faces move like Muppets, while their Gumby-like bodies support a wide range of hilarious poses. Initially drab and gray, the environment erupts with color as soon as the weather turns tasty, featuring a palette that pops even more than “Up’s” South American balloon ride (the photoreal food, meanwhile, dramatically expands on “Ratatouille’s” menu).
The takeaway here is that it’s OK to be a nerd, which applies not only to the young lovebirds (Sam is constantly apologizing for her brainy outbursts) but also the directors themselves, who tackle “Cloudy” like a thought experiment, taking a crazy idea and seeing it through to its philosophical conclusion. In this case, that means staging a giant aerial battle against the army of mutant food that has risen up to defend Flint’s device — a finale that evokes such sci-fi staples as “Independence Day” and “Star Wars,” if the Death Star were a giant meatball.
Teetering just this side of haywire, the climax works (in 3D, at least) perhaps only by virtue of its visceral roller-coaster appeal. Both the father-son relationship and romantic subplot satisfy, but Lord and Miller are remiss to ignore a proper villain. (Flint’s insubordinate invention echoes a red-eyed HAL, though the power-hungry mayor seems equally responsible for letting things get out of control.) The directors clearly privilege comedy over drama, and as the epic food fight winds down, they cleverly use various recurring gags to deliver a final emotional payoff.
Pic’s visual design is staggering, featuring crowd sequences and a giant “foodalanche” that would have crashed the servers a few years back. The stereoscopic design is easy on the eyes yet playful with its use of space, yielding some of the most satisfying 3D viewing to date.