When is a cliche not a cliche?

Sometimes when I watch movies I enjoy the heck out of them, only for my enthusiasm to wane upon reflection.  It’s like getting excited by a loud explosion, only to sniff the air a few moments later and realize it was in fact a really big fart.

An early example of this I remember was Tim Burton’s Batman Returns.  When I first saw it I ventured to say in front of my brother that I liked it more than the first Batman.  I said it had more character development, more pathos, more intrigue.

My brother arched an eyebrow and looked at me as if I were a fool.  Rightly so.  When I saw it a second time I realized I had been swept up by the visuals, the writing was poor and the plot contrived.  It was then I began to realize I might have a problem with Tim Burton, but that’s another story.

Today I rewatched an animated film called Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and it still held up from when I watched it last year.  I wasn’t even going to watch it, Gillian wanted to, and I figured I’d go work on the computer in the meantime.  But within thirty seconds I was curled up on the couch with her and didn’t leave until the end credits.

In fact I read a review I wrote comparing it with the disaster film 2012 and found that everything I wanted to say I already said then, and it still holds true now.  So, since I haven’t posted that review before, here it is.  It’s a doozy.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs vs. 2012

At first this might seem like a bizarre comparison.  Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a children’s movie after all.  But I assure you, it IS a disaster movie.  And having just saw both this and 2012 back to back and you might (or might not) be surprised to hear that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is the better movie.

Now, I’m not saying 2012 is a terrible movie.  It’s enjoyable.  I suspect that anyone who goes to see 2012 will in fact be entertained and satisfied by it.  It’s disaster porn through and through and if you can’t get enough of watching people’s last moments in hopeless situations, you’re going to love it.  Me, I’m not that big a fan of the genre.  I admit the eye candy has an appeal to me, as do such broad concepts as a meteor hitting the earth or a instant ice age, or the end of the world and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do to stop it.  I think there is a small evil part in all of us that hears about a deadly 8.5 earthquake and wonders what would have happened if it had been a 9.5.  It doesn’t wish it did, it just… wonders.  That’s the part that enjoys disaster movies, I think, to safely and guiltlessly experience that.

That said, far too often that is the ONLY thing that goes into these kinds of movies.  Set up a horrible scenario in which many many people will die, have a cast of a dozen people to relate to, kill off 3/4 or more of them in the course of the movie.  The end.  You throw in an obligatory love story, a heroic sacrifice or two, the voice of reason no one listens to, people you thought were dead but turn out to be alive, an evil scumbag douche or two (and at least one will get their cumuppance) you know the drill.

In fact, 2012 could be the greatest disaster movie ever made for a drinking game.  Every time you spot a cliche, take a shot.  You’ll be drunk before the opening credits finish.  It borrows from every other disaster movie, and why not?  It’s the mother of all disaster movies.  You can’t get more epic that wiping out 6 billion people.  All the others wuss out and have the earth saved at that last second.

But it’s not really about anything.  Yeah you have a divorced father and a mother with a new husband, and over the course of the next two and a half hours (and it is a testement to the film that it is very long but does not FEEL like it’s too long, that’s not easy) they do their duely appointed lip service to “working things out” but it’s only because they got a decent cast of actors that anyone stays awake for it.  The actors are, of course, a saving grace of the film.  There’s an old addage of writers that it doesn’t matter if the Titanic is sinking, a skyscraper is collapsing or the world is ending; it means absolutely nothing unless the reader cares about the characters it is happening to.  And the cast is good enough to make the most of the script, so you do care.  Well, enough anyway.  They’re just actors, they can’t work miracles.

Now, contrast this to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  As I said, this is a disaster movie.  It’s the kind of disaster movie Tex Avery might have come up with, and it very much does feel like the kind of exagerated cartoons of old, but in CGI.

How does this stack up to 2012 as a disaster flick?  Surprisingly well.  For one thing an all CGI environment makes it easier to “believe” what is happening because it’s like on like, and not real/animation along the lines of Dick Van Dyke dancing with cartoon penguins.  The consistency makes it easier to suspend your disbelief.  In 2012, though the CGI is very realistic but when the heroes are escaping you never feel like they’re actually escaping so much as taking you on a guided Cooke’s Tour to get the best view of the disaster.

Meatballs hits all the cliches as well.  All those ones I mentioned above?  They’re in there.  Just don’t turn it into a drinking game if you have young children watching with you.

Because it’s so overtly cartoonish, Meatballs manages to make its premise seem believable – within the reality of the movie – and even threatening.  The same kind of care is taken for a building being crushed by a giant pretzel or a sign being smashed by a giant cherry as anything you’ll see in 2012.  I found myself going “Whoa!” more than once just becuase the eye candy was so damn impressive.  Even the last ditch effort to evacuate the people from the island has a sense of urgency to it that you bought into.

And I remind you this is a movie about an island destroyed by giant food.

In a way, this movie reminds me of Shaun of the Dead.  A movie that manages to combine two genres that have no business being together in a way that somehow works.  The juxtaposition extends beyond just the cartoon/disaster film, however.  For example, there is a snowball fight that is shot as if it’s a brutal home invasion with an entire family killed in the process.  They’re not, of course, it’s just snowballs, but that’s how it’s shot.  It’s as brutal as possible, which makes it hilarious.  The whole movie is very funny, I should point out.

But now for the big question: What’s it about?  Well, unlike 2012, in which the family situation just felt like it was there for the times they didn’t have stuff to blow up,  The faimily situation here is the point of the film.  The problems between the father and son feels genuine, they just can’t communicate with one another.  The father, a fisherman, always uses fishing metaphors that the son, a scientist, just can’t understand.  Any time they try to talk you really do feel the chasm between them.  Maybe you’ve felt it yourself with one of your parents.  You both want to connect but you just can’t understand the other’s world.  The son wants the father to be proud of him and the father is worried that maybe the son needs to settle down and do something practical.  The son wants to be a great scientist, but the father knows that fishing is a steady, reliable job.  He doesn’t want to crush his son’s dreams, but he’s worried about his future.

The love story in Meatballs also comes across as more genuine than those in 2012.  Go figure.  In this case Flint Lockwood (the scientist, and you won’t forget his name after hearing Mr T say it half a dozen times as if it’s one word) has always been a science geek, who keeps on trying failure after failure to a naive degree that would have Don Quixote shake his head.  Watching him run to his treehouse as a child wearing a lab coat way too big for him, eyes full of wonder is one of the early joys of the film, and depicts exactly the kind of guy he grows up to be (and the treehouse he has as an adult is awesome).  Sam Sparks, on the other hand, took the other path, someone who had to hide her geeky nature right up into adulthood in order to fit in.  Watching her embrace her inner geek is a great point in the film.

It’s also about believing in yourself, daring to dream, not giving up.  When Flint gets his vindication both early on and later, just before it all goes to hell, you really feel for him.  The opening lines of the movie say it best:

“Have you ever felt you were… a little bit different?  Like you had something unique to offer the world, if you could just get people to see it?  Then you know exactly how it felt to be me.”

It’s not Shakespeare, of course.  It’s actually a pretty ordinary opening line.  My brother has pointed out that he’s sick of the family film cliche of the guy who has a special gift but nobody understands him, and he’s got a point.  It’s overdone.  But there’s something about this line and how it’s used that says it all.  It’s a theme that I understood as a child, and I feel even more profoundly now as an adult.

In short, it doesn’t matter if you use a cliche, it matters HOW you use it. The way Meatballs presented them didn’t bother me in the least, they felt organic and natural.  While the cliches in 2012 provide more amusement than anything, as you tick off the mental checklist in your head.

Ultimately, though, when deciding which is the better movie you have to ask yourself which you would want to see again.  I enjoyed 2012 but have no real interest in seeing it again, but I went and saw Meatballs a second time (on cheap night) and will probably buy the DVD.  It was that much fun and had that much going for it.