There are certain “best of” movie lists that critics are always asked to compile. Two of the most popular ones are Best Romantic Movies (usually pegged to Valentine’s Day) and Favorite Scary Movies (cue the Halloween hoopla). One perennial list, however, has no holiday to call its own. That would be Best Food Movies, a list that tends not to be especially adventurous because almost everyone can agree, more or less, on the films that should be on it.
There’s Babette’s Feast, the slow-moving but still rather tasty Danish drama that, in 1987, really put the food genre on the art-house map. A little ahead of the curve was Tampopo (1985), the gonzo Japanese cowboy culinary parable about the search for the ultimate bowl of noodle soup. There’s Like Water for Chocolate (1992), another Babette-style fable in which the forces of food represent sensuality, freedom, and the overthrow of stuffed-shirt 19th-century values. There’s that gooey-sweet multinational-Hallmark confection Chocolat (2000), and the movie that a lot of folks, including me, consider the lip-smacking romantic masterpiece of the genre, the great, rich, sad, happy, little-men-making-huge-flavor comedy Big Night (1996). And, recently, there’s the one that proved that the foodie movie could thrive in the megaplex: Julie & Julia, that stirring, stir-the-pot homage to Julia Child and the gourmet revolution to which she lent her face and spirit.
I enjoy some of these films more than others (the overthrow of stuffed-shirt values is, from my experience, a theme that tends to appeal mostly to stuffed shirts), but there’s one crucial thing that they share: They’re all about a quest for food that is special, rarefied, refined, exquisite. What never gets included, perhaps because it barely exists, is a movie about the search for, you know…the ultimate cheeseburgers and fried chicken. And that’s why I loved Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It’s a film I would now add proudly to that list.
It’s a terrifically clever animated comedy — zippy but never ADD manic, as full of feeling as it is visual flavor — but at the center of the film’s appeal is its surreal, Dalí-meets-Roald Dahl, popping-out-of-the-sky celebration of comfort food: those burgers that drop like hailstones, those oversize floppy-warm pancakes you can taste with your eyes, that Mothra of a BLT that plops onto the Eiffel Tower, those giant ice-cream scoops that turn the island town of Swallow Falls into a landscape fit for a Neapolitan snowball fight.
All of this tastebud-teasing spectacle is summoned forth by Flint Lockwood, a post-adolescent nerd of a mad scientist who’s like Jimmy Neutron hosting a special episode of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Before his crazed invention, which converts the precipitation in the air into the munchies of your dreams, Swallow Falls is a rusty, depressed industrial ghetto in which the only thing to eat is sardines. Flint turns the place into comfort-food heaven.
The wonderful thing about Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is that it coasts along on kids’ unhinged fantasies of the food they want to eat, but it also turns adults into kids by tapping into our most childlike, junky-happy hunger reveries. It’s the spirit of Candy Land, James and the Giant Peach, and the great Homer Price story “The Doughnuts” brought into the gizmoid age of instant gratification.
But what happens when you eat too much comfort food? A year ago, critics across the land showered praise on Wall-E for its vision of America as a mega-mall of overgrown-baby couch potatoes. Cloudy hasn’t received that sort of praise, but it’s every bit as pop-political, because it’s about the danger of living in a culture that’s become fixated on food that tastes as good as the food in this movie looks. Late in the film, the image of a slurpy, whirling tornado made entirely of spaghetti and meatballs becomes an indelible expression of a society that is literally spinning, madly, in the grip of its obsession with delectable high calories. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is the best kind of yin-and-yang message movie: The film says that it’s great to indulge, to let your taste buds be ruled by your inner child. As long as you don’t eat yourself into blissed-out oblivion.