'Meatballs' sweet with a side of fun

When an animated children's film has a punch line that includes the term "amuse bouche," you know it's not talking down to kids.

Yet "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" isn't above their heads, either, or one of those kids movies that's really for adults. (I loved "Wall-E," too, but you know I'm right!) It's just a smart family film that manages to take aim at obesity, cable news and politicians, among other things, while still being a whole lot of fun.

Based on a children's book of the same name by Judi Barrett, "Cloudy" tells the story of Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader), a nascent inventor whose ideas are typically more imaginative than practical. In elementary school, for instance, he comes up with a solution for the shoe-lace dilemma: spray-on shoes. The only problem is, you can't get them off once they dry.

Flint is a nerd, the classic misunderstood loner; his only cheerleader is his mom. She dies, and so as a young adult Flint is left with his dad (James Caan) who doesn't see the wonder in Flint's inventiveness. Dad just wants his son to join him at the bait and tackle shop.

They live in a town devoted to sardines until the great sardine bust, a collapse brought on by the universal revelation that sardines are gross. Stuck with a backlog of the canned fish, the town eats sardines for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That is, until Flint hits pay dirt with an invention that allows him to program any kind of food and have it fall from the sky.

The strange weather phenomenon brings National Weather Network's Sam Sparks (Anna Faris, who sounds a lot like Drew Barrymore) to town. Sparks is secretly Flint's equal: She's a closet nerd dressed up like the perfect broadcast blonde.

It's not a cliché to say that hilarity ensues. Flint's invention revives the town, stoking the fire of the ambitious pig of a mayor (Bruce Campbell) who, when he's not eating, plans for worldwide tourist domination. It rocks the world of Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), a grown-up in a diaper who was the big man/boy in town when sardines ruled. Flint must also contend with the town's sheriff (Mr. T), who doesn't think much of Flint's shenanigans.

The casting on this film is superb.Mr. T has always been an animated character, but this role actually turns him into an actor. As a tough guy besotted with his son, Mr. T's sheriff helps set up a counterpoint for the relationship between Flint and his father.

One thing I loved was that no jokes were wasted. Flint's failed inventions, such as combining birds and rats, show up fittingly throughout the film. There are plentiful drive-by pop culture references. And the kids will be enchanted by the foodscapes: an ice cream wonderland, Jell-O diving, even steaks like manna from heaven. You'll love the pasta tornado. (By the way, an amuse bouche is basically a type of hors d'oeurve.)

The screening I attended was in 3D, and I'd suggest seeing it that way. In most cases, 3D viewing has left me flat. It's too often used in a gimmicky way as a means to have things careen toward you. This 3D added dimension to the film.

Of course, the storytelling is what really pulled me in. Call me old school, but I still think words bring that third dimension most powerfully. In the end, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" is a delightful, sweet animated story about a kid who's a little different, seeking redemption and yearning for that parental pat on the back.

I can't wait to see it again with my own kid.

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