I sat in the theater, gritting my teeth as I watched a birthday party walk in. I had carefully and strategically chosen where I was sitting, so I wouldn’t be too close or too far from the screen. I watched them survey the theater, then waddle to the row directly in front of me and file in. Much to my chagrin, they were carrying balloons. I was alone at a showing of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.
Meatballs is about food, food that comes alive. In the previous Meatballs film, a wiry and earnest boy named Flint (Bill Hader) invented a machine that creates the living food, food which in turn destroys his hometown. Now Flint, with his gang of friends and doeeyed love interest Sam (Anna Faris), is facing off with his Steve Jobs-ish inventor hero turned nemesis, Chester V (Will Forte). They are fighting for the machine that creates the “shrimpanzees” (pieces of shrimp that act like chimpanzees) and susheep (sushi-sheep), among others. Paramount to Meatballs are its puns and saucy, talking animals, some of them made by Flint’s machine, and some who just happen to be part of the film’s organic universe; Chester V’s number two is an orangutan (Kristin Schaal) who wears lipstick and eyeshadow.
The film’s story, as you might expect, is pretty boring. You can sense the plot turns before they happen, and the optimism entrenched in the film gives way to simplicity. All the questions the film asks have a predetermined, right answer waiting; the animals should not be eaten, friends are good, don’t trust the big corporation. The best of what Meatballs has to offer – a high energy imaginary world, the satanic gaiety of its villains – can be found in the film’s trailer, or even in its posters. But when these elements come at the audience for an hour and a half, never resting for a craving to redevelop, they turn from funny to lurid. Nevertheless, my urge to get the perfect seat, sit in silence, separated from the crowd and criticize Meatballs for being hackneyed made me cringe when I looked at the children sitting around me.
They pointed at characters, telling each other who they’d be. They danced to any and all music in the film, sometimes just to any loud noise. They laughed openly, sometimes not from something onscreen, but just for the sheer glee of being at a movie. Watching these kids watch the movie made not just Meatballs, but the very medium of film seem extraordinary and wild. You could almost hear the crashes in their brains, their heads and hearts hurting, because they were taking it all in so hard. My reasons for disliking Meatballs vanished happily, like the laughter pouring into the theater around me.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is best seen in a packed auditorium, where you can hear strangers’ laugh when you laugh, and turn your head around to see them. Still, of course, when the lights go up, you’ll be as I was, alone, and twenty, and surrounded by several children’s birthday parties. But you may want to smash your iPhone with a hammer, and spend all day at the movies, watching cartoons, without ever pausing to stop laughing, because they’re just so exciting.