There was something familiar that jumped out about the new animated fantasy "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." And it was not just that the book upon which the film was based had been a favorite of mine since childhood.
The picture was characterized by a sense of optimism, a familiarity with technology, an over-the-top creative energy, and the visuals and icons of the 1980s. What do these four components indicate? Walking out of the theatre I could not help but ponder, was "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" made by members of Generation Y? Were filmmakers of my generation starting to helm major Hollywood films?
Quick research confirmed it. According to the Internet Movie Database Writers-directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord were born in 1975 and 1977 respectively. That would place them right at the beginning of Generation Y, which most demographers tend to set as starting with babies born from the late ‘70s through the mid ‘90s.
The book of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett) was first released in 1978 and then again in paperback in 1982. Thus it positioned itself to be a favorite of Gen-Y children. The book is a fairly simple narrative, framed by a grandfather telling the tall tale of the town of Chewandswallow where it rains food from the skies.
Rereading the book now it's obvious that while the narrative is perfect for a children's book a straight adaptation to a 90-minute film would be a disaster. In the book the protagonists are the children hearing the story. In the grandfather's story of Chewandswallow there are not any characters.
So in adapting "Cloudy" Miller and Lord had to create whole new characters to populate Chewandswallow. What they stay true to is the basic structure of the story and the unforgettable images.
Driving the film adaptation is Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader,) an eccentric young inventor who does not quite fit in with the Sardine-centric lifestyle of the island town of Swallow Falls. The community's economy is driven by the local fish industry and has little interest in Flint's often destructive attempts at new inventions. Flint's bait shop-owning father Tim (James Caan) epitomizes this sensibility and while initially tolerating Flint's ideas eventually pushes his son to join the family business and give up his hair-brained schemes.
When the town's economy goes under once the world begins to reject sardines Flint sees an opportunity. He creates a new invention that can change water into food. When he attempts to power the device it goes haywire and launches into the atmosphere.
The invention then begins working from the skies, taking in clouds and spraying food down upon Swallow Falls' residents. Covering the phenomenon is Samantha "Sam" Sparks (Anna Faris,) an ambitious intern for the weather channel. It's a career-making story that also brings her to Flint, a quirky kindred spirit.
The town's corrupt mayor (Bruce Campbell!) renames the town ChewandSwallow and urges Flint - who has figured out how to remotely-control the device - to make increasingly elaborate food showers to attract tourists. Of course it's only a matter of time before the town pushes the device too far and Flint loses control of it.
If one juxtaposes the Gen-Y approach of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" with the Gen-X aesthetics of many films of the last 15 years some clear differences emerge.
Unlike many computer animated films, particularly those made by Generation X directors at Dreamworks, the focus of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" is not on wall-to-wall pop culture references and sarcasm. If there's anything that Gen-Xers seem to do in their films it's throw in references to comic books, other movies, music, TV shows, and fads. We see this particularly in the work of such Gen-X directors as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Judd Apatow. In the realm of computer animation this has been Dreamworks' modus operandi starting with 2001's "Shrek" and going up to its peak in this year's "Monsters Vs. Aliens." Pop culture is elevated to such importance that it almost becomes a character in and of itself.
That's not to say "Cloudy" completely eschews pop culture references. They certainly show up here and there. The difference is that connecting with audiences through a shared lowbrow culture is not Miller and Lord's key for creating an engaging picture. Instead they're more interested in developing characters and substantive themes about family and identity. The emotionally-distant father figure Tim struggles to articulate his love for and support of his son Flint. The awkward Flint has spent so much of his life focused on inventing that when a romantic relationship presents itself his technical brilliance is all but for naught. (Except when he uses the device to make a giant gelatin palace for Sam in one of the most visually exciting elaborations on one of the original book's images.)
That Miller and Lord are children of the ‘80s could not be more apparent. Just look at the cast. Campbell, star of the "Evil Dead" trilogy plays a corrupt mayor. Mr. T plays a goofy police officer clearly inspired by his pop culture persona. Neil Patrick Harris (best known as Doogie Houser, M.D. until his recent career revival as a sex-crazed parody of himself in the "Harold and Kumar" films and "How I Met Your Mother") does the voice of Flint's talking monkey. Even the imagery invokes the ‘80s. Flint incorporates a Simon puzzle into his laboratory's security mechanism and all of the computer visuals are in the style of blocky, ‘80s-era computer graphics.
What's most satisfying about the film is the way Miller and Lord push the envelope. Even to someone like myself who might as well have the children's book memorized "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" had one surprise after another. Going into the film's climax the concept just kept getting pushed in freakish, over-the-top directions. The ending could never be predicted. This is worlds apart from the Gen-X Dreamworks pictures whose plots adhere slavishly to a cookie cutter formula.
And while perhaps I might be just a tad biased in this estimation, it's on this last point that Generation Y can make the most important contribution to not just computer animation but to all of cinema. The envelope can and needs to be pushed further. And the Gen Ys rising in Hollywood are the ones to do it.