Saturday, September 19, 2009

SORT-OF REVIEW: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

The Looney Tunes series of cartoons were made for adult audiences. Animation geeks love to point this out (I should know, I count myself among them). But this simple statement goes beyond being an interesting bit of trivia, and cuts to the core of why they don’t make great cartoons anymore. They make great pieces of animation, but there’s nothing as silly, pointless, formally brilliant, ceaselessly inventive and creative, and completely unhinged as the original Looney Tunes pieces anymore. Hell, I’d settle for Tom and Jerry.

The reason is the institution of modern cartoon making has decided that these are for kids, and, worse, movies for kids have to have a message, a moral, an emotional arc for a conflicted but ultimately righteous protagonist, and a three-act structure so sturdy you could build a house on it. And a lot of celebrities on the voice cast who may or may not have the capacity for voice acting. And that’s why films like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, which is by far the best cartoon I’ve seen in years, possibly since The Emperor's New Groove, are so frustrating. Here’s a film completely stuffed to the brim with imagination and wackiness, but the container in which it sits is insufficient, and some of the best stuff was left out.

What really upsets me about this is that kids don’t need a lesson or an emotional arc or even a three-act structure. There were a group of kids a couple rows in front of me jumping up and down at the beginning of the movie, physically reacting to the dazzle of the animation, trying to reach out and take hold of the 3-D image. They settled way down when the third act kicked into gear.

By comparison, most Looney Tunes cartoons were about acts of revenge against barely-competent antagonists who really, truly don’t deserve what comes to them, or the foils of completely incompetent aggressors attempting to change their lot in life. Bugs Bunny is a sociopath if you looked at him on paper. I’m at once incredibly surprised and deeply thrilled that kids today still take in, and are allowed to take in, the anarchy of classic Looney Tunes, and even more aghast that there doesn’t seem to be a single studio today willing to give kids what they want the most.

For the record, just so there’s no confusion – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a really good cartoon for the limitations it’s working with. My girlfriend is always quick to insist that the guidelines of the production code should not be held against the films of mid-1930s through the late 1960s, and I suppose we should accept the same of modern cartoons. It’s still too damn bad, though.

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