Back in 2009, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller took us by surprise with their adaptation of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a thirty-two page children’s book wherein author Judi Barrett describes a town afflicted by giant food storms. In light of Hollywood’s recent tendency to impose the rigid Shrek (2001) template on every animated film, critics such as myself expected a formulaic family adventure filled with forced pop culture references, empty life lessons, and tired plays on words. Instead, we got a zany, downright frantic tribute to youthful exuberance and, of course, a bona fide hit.
Now comes Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, directed by Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn. In many ways, it’s the movie I thought we’d get four years ago. Sure, our returning heroes still move and talk like boneless grade school students afflicted with attention deficit disorder. However, their breezy charm is weighed down by the demands of a Hollywood plot brimming with outdated sci-fi references, artificial conflict, and enough food puns to drive any man to the brink of sanity. Also, Terry Crews takes over the role of Officer Devereaux, and I pity the fool who thinks he can replace Mr T.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 picks up where the previous instalment left off, by which I mean literally twelve seconds after the latter’s closing scene. The island of Swallow Falls now a giant plate of leftovers, our protagonists are evacuated to San Fran Jose, California, where Flint (Bill Hader) takes up a job with Live Corp, a snack manufacturer owned by his childhood hero, Chester V (Will Forte). The corporate mogul looks and gesticulates likes Steve Jobs, which means he’s got a secret agenda with nefarious implications.
Meanwhile, in Flint’s absence, the Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator has evolved its programming to create sentient snack critters like the pear-rots, the mosqui-toasts, the shrimp-anzees, and the Taco-diles Supreme. Hey, I warned you about those tasty puns. I also mentioned that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 trades in obscure references its target audience is sure to miss. Take, for example, the elaborate riff on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World as our heroes journey back to Swallow Falls.
All of our favourite characters return, regardless of whether they’ve got anything left to contribute, and it’s at this point that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 goes on autopilot, forcing Flint to reabsorb a lesson he already learnt in the first film. You see, Chester V tells him that the food creatures must be stopped before they attack the rest of the world. His friends suspect an ulterior motive on account that the Swallow Falls fauna has so far proven benign. This leaves our hero with a choice between the approval of his idol and that of people who rejected him just one movie ago.
On the one hand, I like that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 addresses a more insidious (and prevalent) form of bullying than the usual fit of psychotic violence. Chester V may not dunk his subordinates’ heads in the toilet, but he does keep them dependent on his affections by way of lies and passive-aggressive putdowns. I contend that kids have more to learn from this dysfunctional pattern than they do from the fairy tale of winning over a community through a single good deed.
On the other hand, the villainy of Live Corp’s ultimate ploy relies on the audience not grasping that hamburger meat comes from cows. This tiny, weird detail drags down an otherwise inoffensive family romp with likeable characters and, yes, adorable animation. Whereas most cartoon sequels like Shrek 2 (2004) and Shrek the Third (2007) leave me wondering whether I’ve pissed away two hours of my life, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 simply had me longing for the days when I thought food puns were hi-lard-ious.