Is there a purer jumping off point for an adventure fantasy than the latest creation of a loveable oddball inventor? It certainly worked for Back To The Future, Edward Scissorhands and the Wallace & Gromit animations. Some might say it's a lazy way of beginning things, a species of hi-jinks ex machina, but for energetic storytelling of the plunge-straight-in variety, it's hard to beat.
Lively 3D CGI film Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs takes exactly this approach. Within minutes we're introduced to Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), a nebbish would-be Edison desperate to prove himself, and are treated to a quick survey of some of his eccentric work, which includes the unlovely ratbirds (a cross between rat and bird, naturally), a monkey-thought translator (it turns out monkeys mainly think about Gummi Bears) and a device designed to create food out of water.
It's this latter contraption that provides the meat of the story, quite literally, when accidentally fired into the sky above Flint's small town. Clouds begin to rain hamburgers, and that's only the entree in a long list of foodstuffs Flint manages to order up from back on earth. From being a social reject nagged by his dad (James Cann) and disparaged by the townsfolk, including town cop Earl Devereaux (Mr T doing what Mr T Does best: shouting), the swaggering Mayor (Bruce Campbell) and plump former child celebrity 'Baby' Brent (Andy Samberg), Flint becomes the town's golden son.
It's the honeymoon period of Flint's manna from heaven device on which the trailer and poster for the film focus, and if you've not seen the movie, you could be forgiven for thinking we've been served a paean to the joys of junk food and overconsumption: the ultimate American Dream movie, perhaps. In fact, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs has more in common with a CGI Super Size Me as drawn by Tex Avery. Especially when things spiral out of control - because despite Flint's warnings that tinkering with the climate in this way is highly unstable, the greedy Mayor demands ever more free-falling goodies on behalf of the town's tourist industry and his own burgeoning bulk.
The visual delights of the resultant global "perfect food storm" alone provide one of the film's best gags: following a Bruckheimer disaster movie-style montage of Egypt's pyramids, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Great Wall Of China and other tourist favourites engulfed in food, a news reporter turns to camera and comments that in a bizarre development, the phenomenon seems set to attack major landmarks first, before spreading to more nondescript areas.
Meanwhile, the chaos is being covered by Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), a perky intern at The Weather Channel, who women everywhere can prepare to cheer for her reverse Hollywood makeover. While we're used to seeing the "ugly" girl transformed by letting her hair out of a pony tail and getting rid of her glasses (see: countless films, but Humphrey Bogart performs the all-time fastest in The Big Sleep), an unwillingly glossy Sam is told by Flint that's she's loveliest as herself, when she sticks her glasses back on, ties up her studio-primped hair and - most importantly - stops pretending not to be as whip smart as she is. Not that anything will prevent her from indulging in squirmworthy puns: "You may have seen a meteor shower, but you've never seen a shower meatier than this." Or stop the studio insisting throughout her greatest exclusive, post-makeover, that they'll need to block the broadcast until she stops looking so "ugly".
Animation and comedy have always been a good way of slipping in broadsides at social norms without looking like a preachy so-and-so, and there's more criticism of global warming, sexism in the media, obesity issues and capitalism in this one film than many an earnest documentary - but only if you care to look for it; Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs never forgets its primary function as a very funny romp.
After some of the dreck slung kiddiewards in the name of broad entertainment this summer (hang your heads, Transformers 2 and Aliens In The Attic) it's a relief to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a quality children's film packed with enough genuine invention, sharp scripting and sweet-natured charm to power a dozen lesser creations.
With Pixar's Up also out soon and lauded to the skies, those with children need not fear the coming of the autumn months. It is to be hoped that Up's Pixar pedigree doesn't entirely overshadow Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs. The Sony name is hardly a byword for brilliantly realised animated adventures, but here, they've cooked up a minor classic of the genre.