Working from a beloved 1978 children's book by Judi and Ron Barrett that had virtually no plot, 2009's "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" was a pleasant surprise for kids and parents. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller not only assembled one of the most likable voice casts of that year but cleverly worked relatable themes of personal expression, parental acceptance, and even a sweet romance into a tale in which cheeseburgers fall from the sky and gummy bears can be deadly.
Returning to Swallow Falls in the inevitable sequel (not at all based on the Barrett's literary follow-up, "Pickles to Pittsburgh"), the creators of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" retain enough of the imaginative energy of their predecessor to keep little ones engaged but they fall victim to the common trap of animated sequels, believing that the driving creative principle has to be more, More, MORE. The food doesn't just fall from the sky this time, it moves, breathes, and develops its own ecosystem. The result is a film in which the environment, the "Foodimals," end up more interesting than the characters or story.
In a brief recap to open the sequel, we're reminded that Flint Lockwood's (Bill Hader) "FLDSMDFR" ("Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator") was lost at the end of the first film, leaving everyone with a happy ending but what looked like a heck of a lot of clean-up work. Flint is awestruck when his idol, a creative titan known as Chester V (Will Forte), head of the revolutionary tech company Live Corp, descends on Swallow Falls and not only offers to help in the clean-up efforts going on around the world but wants to work with Flint.
Lockwood, his girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), and dad Tim (James Caan) head off to San Franjose, where Flint becomes a cog in Chester's highly-competitive machine, a tech operation where there's a caffeine station every ten feet and monitors display motivational platitudes from the company leader. The spoofing of the tech industry's over-caffeinated, over-competitive atmosphere by writers John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein, and Erica Rivinoja is clever but will likely go over the heads of most kids and register as kind of slight for the older ones.
Of course, the clearly malevolent Chester V, aided by an ape with a human brain named Barb (Kristen Schaal), has sinister motives. He wants the FLDSMDFR and he knows Flint is the only one who can get it for him. Chester convinces Flint that Swallow Falls has become overrun by deadly creatures that are half-food, half-animals. Vicious "Cheesespiders" (cheeseburger-shaped spiders) roam the island, even killing off most of the Live Corp. employees who have gone to help the clean-up effort. With his knowledge of how all of this chaos started in the first place, Flint is the only one who can save the island. He's like Ian Malcolm in "The Lost World," headed back to the chaos, and the visual cues to the Steven Spielberg series, complete with a stampede of giant bananas are pretty transparent. Replace the Raptors with Cheesespiders and the T. Rex with a giant taco.
Of course, there are no lone heroes in kid's movies and the writers and new directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn can't miss the chance to get the beloved characters from the first movie back to help Flint on his journey. The lovely Sam and gruff pop join forces with Flint's monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), Officer Earl (Terry Crews, replacing Mr. T from the first film), and even Chicken Brent (Andy Samberg) and cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt). Can friendship and teamwork tackle an island of "Flamangoes" and "Shrimpanzees"?
I wish "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" answered that question. It's not a film about friendship and teamwork as it is a film about marshmallows with faces. "Cloudy 2" is undeniably dense with ideas, images, and characters but slight on anything of thematic interest at all. The first movie was about a kid obsessed with science and ostracized from his society learning that he had a place in it. The second movie is about an admittedly adorable, talking strawberry. The characters of "Cloudy 2" are almost non-existent, turning into devices to get viewers to the next visual "ooh" moment. Yes, a lot of those visual moments are creative but this film simply lacks the heart of the first one, becoming a series of interesting set pieces more than an engaging story.
It's not through lack of trying on the part of the voice cast, who are uniformly strong. Hader and Faris have an energy that most animated films lack and they're accompanied well by Caan, Forte, and Schaal. Finding the right actors to voice the characters is a crucial and often under-valued element in animation and a lot of the success of "Cloudy" came back to the way Hader and Faris didn't phone in their work in the slightest, making Flint and Sam characters who were easy to root for. This time, the script doesn't give them enough time to work creatively other than to respond to what's around them but the cast can't be blamed for that.
It comes down to point of comparison. Holding this film up against its wildly inventive predecessor shows its flaws and yet it retains enough of that movie's creative spark that it's hard to dismiss when compared to the other films that clutter the animated marketplace. The world of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" is a cleverly-conceived one, the design of the film is engaging on all levels, and the voice cast is great. It's the story that fails to engage beyond the glittering surface. Maybe they should try "Pickles to Pittsburgh" next time.