The Common Good

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: A Visual Feast with a Side of Social Commentary

090921-cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballsI have to admit, I wasn't expecting much when I first took my seat in the theater to preview Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a 3-D animated comedy based on the popular children's book. At the very least, I hoped it would be better than G-Force, that painful guinea pig action caper from Disney that I endured (for my kids' sake) earlier in the summer. But as the lights went down and the screen lit up, I was almost immediately transfixed by the zesty exuberance, frantic pace, and sheer ridiculousness of this loud and colorful film. The movie swings with wackiness, wonder, and truth. And, most of all, food.

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Cloudy is the story of Flint Lockwood (voiced by Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader), an eccentric but good-hearted science geek who, after many failed inventions, finally finds success with his creation of a machine that converts water into food.

Flint lives in Swallow Falls, a fishing town off the Atlantic coast known for its sardines. But when the sardine trade goes flat, Swallow Falls becomes like any number of today's recession-ravaged, working-class towns -- think Detroit or Youngstown or Gary -- whose primary industry has become more a nostalgic memory than a present reality. The community is left searching for a reason to exist.

When Flint's miraculous contraption causes cheeseburgers to rain on the town, Swallow Falls is transformed from a sad and forgotten island into an international tourist attraction that glistens with vibrant hues as a smorgasbord of epicurean delights descend from the sky like high-calorie manna from heaven -- steaks, hotdogs, cake, ice cream. Flint is transformed personally, too, moving overnight from outcast to coolest guy in town, and grabbing the attention of perky weather reporter Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris). Flint helps Sam rediscover her true geeky self, and Sam helps Flint stay true to his own values.

The evil villain, which any good 3-D animated movie must have, is the town's mayor (voiced by the deliciously creepy Bruce Campbell), who embodies most of the Seven Deadly Sins, particularly greed and gluttony. Mayor Shelbourne loves a good hamburger and sees Flint's invention as the fulfillment of all his grandiose dreams for Swallow Falls -- and as a way of satisfying his mammoth appetite for all-you-can-eat buffets. The mayor's rapidly expanding waistline symbolizes the entire town's voracious desire for ever-larger quantities and portions of Flint's magical cuisine. But, as you might expect, there's a price to pay for their unrestrained consumption.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs's morality is similar yet different from the Disney/Pixar formula of friendship, loyalty, and redemption that has become the gold standard for all other family-friendly animated films. While Cloudy follows that recipe, it also swings wildly into directions all its own, combining outrageous physical and situational humor (Mr. T's voicing of the stern yet silly police chief is especially fun) with an undercurrent of social commentary. In fact, at times I found myself comparing Cloudy not to Pixar's Up or DreamWorks's Monsters vs. Aliens (the year's reigning animated blockbusters) but to Food, Inc., the provocative documentary about the questionable methods of our nation's food industry and how it cleverly manipulates our desires while endangering our health.

Go see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (and I do recommend you see it, whether you have little ones or not) expecting a rip-roaringly fun time at the movies. But also stay attentive to its deeper messages about family values, personal integrity, and our individual and collective roles in the proliferation of social decay. This film has plenty of food for thought; it literally flies off the screen for you to devour.

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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