To consume a steady diet of big-screen cartoons is to be at once wowed by the regular advances in computer animation and bored by the stories they’re often being used to tell. (It’s the cinematic equivalent of gifted gastronomists toiling away in the kitchen of an Arby’s.) For the latest depressing example, look to Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. In this manic, perfunctory sequel, the same malfunctioning magic machine that caused food to rain from the sky in the first Cloudy has turned the quaint island community of Swallow Falls into an edible lost world. Out of the gourmet foliage crawl carnivorous, truck-sized cheeseburgers that walk on french-fry legs and spin webs of cheese, and tribes of pickle men, nattering like the minions of Despicable Me. Both the creatures and their jungle habitat look good enough to eat; lots of time, money, and loving care has been poured into the project, assuring that every sentient vegetable has the perfect shape, color, and texture. What a pity, then, that almost no imagination has been expended on the narrative, an adventure built on easy lessons about the importance of friendship and the dangerous allure of fame.
Like too many sequels, this second helping of Meatballs confuses bigger for better, piling on the action but misplacing much of the original’s charm. Picking up literally seconds after the events of its predecessor, Cloudy 2 finds plucky inventor Bill Hader falling under the influence of his childhood hero, a billionaire mogul/scientist (Will Forte) who tricks the young egghead into searching for his delicacy-creating device, buried somewhere among the delectable wildlife of his overrun hometown. (Naturally, Hader brings along all his old celeb-voiced friends, though the overzealous policeman is now played by Terry Crews instead of Mr. T.) While the technical department offers a cornucopia of visual treats, the writers mostly serve leftovers; their plot reheats several elements from Pixar’s Up, including a tropical-paradise setting, a personal idol who turns out to be a scoundrel, and an animal sidekick with a translator. Directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn also riff on Jurassic Park and, in the superior first act, the gee-whiz corporate culture of Google. The best sight gag on the menu is a grid of office cubicles, each housing a scientist and his work-in-progress invention. Like the film’s animators, these industrious wage slaves break their backs in service of a greedy, imperfect vision.
Pun fanatics will certainly get their fill, as many of the jokes here amount to little more than cramming together the names of food and fauna. (To viewers of a certain age or sensibility, “There’s a leek in my boat” will seem the height of witty wordplay.) But the morals don’t go down as smoothly. Especially hard to swallow is the film’s severely confused perspective on ethical eating. Just to clarify: It’s wrong to convert these oversized food monsters back into meals, but perfectly okay to keep slaughtering actual animals for their meat? A PETA membership isn’t necessary to choke on that mixed message.