"I don't understand the vest... Is it winter on your torso and summer on your arms?"
Hollywood has a long history of co-opting books and adapting them into films that bear little to no resemblance to the source material. Such was the case with 2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, an enjoyable film from Sony Pictures Animation. It should come as no surprise that the film's 2013 sequel Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 similarly shares no similarities with the sequel book Pickles to Pittsburgh, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the film has little in common with anything, including its ad campaign that made it seem as if it was going to be ninety minutes of food puns. Thankfully, it's much smarter than any of us have been led to believe...
Picking up literally where the first film left off, the island of Swallow Falls, having survived the wrath of Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader)'s invention that turns water into food, is visited by world famous inventor, and Flint's idol, Chester V (Will Forte). Chester offers to relocate the citizens of Swallow Falls to San Franjose, a Silicon Valley stand-in, while his Live Corp will handle clean up duties on the island. Chester offers Flint a job at Live Corp, but Flint struggles to make a name for himself at the corporation despite his best efforts. Meanwhile back at Swallow Falls, clean-up efforts have failed because it seems that the food has gained sentience.
Chester dupes Flint into returning to the island to locate his invention, but Flint pulls a fast one on him when he gathers his friends from the first film to accompany him in his quest. Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), Manny (Benjamin Bratt), Officer Earl (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T) and Flint's dad (James Caan) join Flint in his quest, along with Flint's monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris). Their mission seems clear, but Flint's friends notice something more nefarious happening on Swallow Falls, and Flint is too blinded by his loyalty to Chester to see it clearly. Can his friends change his mind in time to save the day?
The recent spate of sequels and prequels in the animation world have really suffered from a dearth of originality, something that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, thankfully, has in spades. What I feared would very quickly devolve into another exercise in "more of the same" actually turned the formula on its head. Flint is actually one of the more interesting protagonists in a children's film series because he's simultaneously childlike in his sense of optimism and wonder, yet also incredibly susceptible to peer pressure and the crippling self-doubt that can bring with it. In other words, he's completely relatable and goes on a journey in both films that children will readily relate to.
What helps this sequel more than anything else is its desire to do something different. The original film's directors only get a story credit here, and their replacements in both the writing and directing departments handle their duties admirably. The film is not content just to rehash ideas from the first film, but build on them and let the plot develop into a logical extension of what the first film accomplished. For example, it always seemed a bit forced that Baby Brent became part of the team of heroes in the first film's third act, and this film deals with that issue, challenging the notion of why Brent, who bullied Flint his entire life, would suddenly be his friend.
The film also deals with the notion of hero worship, and how Flint's father was never really a role model for him, but the appearance of Chester, who clearly was, throws some doubt on how Flint will reconcile these two men competing for his affection and loyalty. But before you go thinking that the film is all heady ideas and no fun, I'm also happy to report that the film is a great deal of fun. Film buffs will get a kick out of the references to everything from Predator, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park, Jaws and even a quick nod to Modern Times, just to name a few, and kids will love the inspired sight gags, particularly those involving Steve & Flint's Dad.
Thankfully they cast the first film well, because the cast really makes the material shine in this film. Hader has the perfect voice for Flint, infusing him with all the qualities that make him a character worth rooting for. The supporting cast is fantastic as well, with Faris, Bratt, Samberg, Forte & Crews all doing great work, as well as Kristen Schaal as Chester's orangutan sidekick. It's funny to praise NPH for his work as well since his character mainly just says his name, but his line readings are great and endlessly amusing. The gold star for the film has to go to Caan as Flint's dad, however. He managed to get the two biggest laughs out of me, and the way his character rides the line between blissful ignorance and blazing self-awareness is hilarious.
All credit for the film's success should similarly go to the film's three credited screenwriters, John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, & Erica Rivinoja. They've crafted a compelling story and done justice to all the characters from the original, helping them to grow in very realistic ways. The direction by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn should be similarly praised, particularly for its creative use of 3D to give the world depth, rather than just resorting to a bunch of gimmicks. If the film has any fault, I would say it lies in the film's overly complicated climax, a problem the first film also suffered from. It's such a roller coaster ride to the finale and then it sort of grinds to a halt as roadblock after roadblock is thrown up seemingly just to pad the running time. This has become more prevalent since Finding Nemo fell into this trap, and I just wish that filmmakers working in this medium would wrap things up a little quicker.
These grievances are minor though, and certainly didn't hinder my enjoyment of the film. It's a truly great animated film that breezes by in just over ninety minutes and just barely flirts with overstaying its welcome. I truly hope that more sequels demonstrate this kind of continuation of the story from the first film rather than just spinning their tires in hopes that audiences will blindly shell out money for more of the same. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 likely won't set the world on fire, but it shows that imagination in this genre is in no short supply, and given the right filmmakers, writers and voice talent, the sequel can once more be a viable storytelling option and not just a fertile but stagnant cash cow.
GO Rating: 4/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]