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Review: The Surprising Meatiness of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

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Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

Who watches Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 at 9:15 p.m. on a Tuesday night at the Magic Johnson Harlem 9? Just me. That's one more person than who showed up at the 10:15 screening. And that leaves about 200 seats that should have been filled with people, because the movie is great and if not great, greatish.

Disclaimer: I didn't see the original film, though I've read and had read to me the original 1978 children's book by Judi Barrett, illustrated by her now ex-husband Ron Barrett. It was, along with Esphyr Slobodkina's Caps For Sale and Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism, one of my favorite children's books. However, a foreknowledge of neither book nor film is a prerequisite for enjoying the sequel. In the case of the former, there's a ten-minute recap up front, and in the latter, the only similarity between the book and the movie is titular.

Perhaps because it is nominally a children's movie, the filmmakers aren't concerned with subtle messaging and the plot of CWACOM2 is a brisk morality tale, told in the scurrying gait of a nun late for vespers. In CWACOM, the original, a floppy-haired big-schnozzed protagonist named Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) invented a machine called the FLDSMDFR, which turned water into food products. But there were unforeseen consequences and brobdingnagian food wreaked havoc on the inhabitants of Swallow Falls, Mr. Lockwood's hometown. The moral was you can't get something for nothing. Relatedly: did you know they just created meat out of nothing? It only tastes okay.

The first movie ended, I gather, with Mr. Lockwood decommissioning FLDSMDFR for the good of mankind, shades of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As the second movie begins, we see the environmental havoc wreaked by his naive meddling in nature. Onto this scene of carnage, a Steve Jobsian entrepreneur named Chester V (Will Forte) arrives, borne in a futuristic helicopter. Spouting New Age platitudes and wearing an orange puffer vest and neat white goatee, Mr. V claims he has been dispatched by the UN to offer humanitarian aid. He demands the inhabitants of Swallow Falls relocate, temporarily, to a refugee camps in San Franjose, the California city where his company headquarters are located.

The locals are initially resistant to become IDPs, but Mr. V effortlessly wears the mantle of authority and deploys yellow police tape to convince them. "You can't argue with police tape," says the only African-American character in the movie, a muscle-bound policeman in short shorts named Earl Devereux (voiced by Terry Crews, the Old Spice guy, formerly a linebacker and currently, a really sharp embodiment and critic of self-aware black masculinity). Finally the citizens of Swallow Falls acquiesce to the move and the young Mr. Lockwood enters into the employ of Mr. V as a work-for-hire.

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The precipitating crisis in the film illustrates how fucked-up crazy the messaging is. I said it was a brisk morality tale that moves hurriedly along, but it doesn't really go in a straight line. It turns out nothing is as it seems. Mr. V is not from the UN. His company, Live Corp, is a Silicon Valley ideas sweatshop, a shameless intellectual property-stealing megalith where lattes in various flavors opiate the masses of white-coated workers, forfeiting their IP for a living wage and soy chai latte. More worrisome, the FLDSMDFR is still functioning.

Worse, the food it produces has become sentient. These sentient beings are called Foodimals. They offer the opportunity for a million corny #dadjokes. There are tropical flamangoes, easy-to-startle bananostriches, and peace-loving watermelephants, as well as fearsome beasts like a very scary Cheespider, a man-eating cheeseburger with eight french fry legs, and a Tacosaurus Supreme, an olive-eyed hard-shell guacamole-spitting taco dinosaur. Here, the film owes a clear debt to James Cameron's Avatar and to the Dutch photographer Joost Elffers. These foodimals have taken over Swallow Falls and, as we see through grainy terrifying video, are slaughtering Mr. V's employees. It's very Aliens-y. Mr. V takes advantage of Mr. Lockwood's naivete and idolization to send him back to Swallow Falls with a mission to find and shut down the FLDSMDFR with a flash drive called the BSUSB.

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Mr. Lockwood returns to Swallow Falls for this purpose and brings along his friends. These include Mr. Devereaux; Mr. Lockwood's love interest, the meteorologist Samantha Sparks (Anna Faris); a short Latino cameraman; an obese dimwit; a monkey named Steve; and Mr. Lockwood's father, Tim (James Caan), the proprietor of a bait-and-tackle shop. Tim is all eyebrows and mustache. Gravelly voiced and working class, the widower Tim has a difficult time relating to his tech-obsessed son. Mr. Lockwood père is a fisherman who has never fished with Mr. Lockwood fils. He is burly, yet feels impotent in the new economy. There are few dramas more heartbreaking than the gradual obsolescence of the American blue collar worker, but one of the few is that of a father trying to figure out how he fits into his son's life, if at all. Mr. Lockwood is asked to wait on the boat while his son and friends find the FLDSMDFR. It's just as sad as the miscarriage scene in UP.

Back in the edible jungles of Swallow Falls, many hijinks ensue: a visit to a laboratory, near-death in a cheese web (Mr. Devereaux: "I'm going to cut the cheese."), and the befriending of a sentient overgrown GMO'd strawberry named Barry. Gradually, it becomes clear that Mr. V is not a nice man at all. He is manipulating Mr. Lockwood to get to the FLDSMDFR, which he then plans to override in order to provide the food for his new product, the Food Bar 8.0. He also plans to slaughter the existing families of flamangoe and bananostriches, the herds of watermelephants — as well as the cutesy marshmallows and cuddly strawberries — in an operation called Slice and Dice.

Narratively, the turning point in the film is when Samantha Sparks discovers the Cheespider is not malevolent, just scared of Live Corp — which is Evil spelled backwards. By being kind, she enlists the help of the once fearful creature. Later, Mr. Lockwood befriends a family of marshmallows. These marshmallows will eventually save his life. But this is also where the lessons get weirdly complicated. Ms. Sparks' discovery that Cheespider has basic goodness is a powerful lesson for any viewer. But for a movie that seems to be aligned against the Food Industrial Complex, marshmallows, cheeseburgers, and genetically modified strawberries make strange heroes.

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Sewn inside the message that industrial food purveyed by such corporations as Hormel, Kraft, and Live Corp is evil, is the lesson that that industrial food is actually, deep down, good. It's just scared of us. Every marshmallow is cuddly; every cheeseburger is benign. Processed food is our friend. That's actually not true, and it makes for a compelling, troubling, and unshakeable quandary: Is the lesson that one should search for the basic human goodness in every sentient being? That seems right. But does that mean that sentient cheeseburgers and sentient marshmallows are good? Gah, it's a moral dilemma more sticky than the soda-covered floor of the movie theatre.

But the real trippy strangeness is in fantasizing that food, such as cheeseburgers, could be sentient in the first place. The strangest part is that it's strange. Of course cheeseburgers at one point were sentient. Every cheeseburger used to be a sentient cow. Real talk: every cheeseburger was once a sentient being. Face it, kids. Every shrimpanzee was once a shrimp, with a tiny brain but a living spark. Every pork sandwich was once a pig, and every chicken taco a chicken. This hard-to-face truth is swaddled in the fantasy of watermelephants and flamangoes, but even the most dense 12-year-old can't leave the theatre without being totally fucked up about food or at least asking questions like this:

The surprisingly gruesome conclusion of the movie, with its shades of Soylent Green, does little to square these questions. But for a one-and-a-half hour children's movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 tackles an astonishing breadth of issues — labor issues, race issues, issues pertaining to the genetic modification of food, a satire of the cult of Steve Jobs. It contains a rather nuanced discussion of intellectual property, a discourse on the difference between apes and monkeys, a debate of the validity of meteorology as a science, and at least a cursory lesson in goodness. If it leaves you feeling rather more cloudy than clear, at least it came with a meaty filling.

Rating: 3/5 stars

· Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 [Official Site]
· All Eater at the Movies [-E-]

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