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Where's the beef? 'Meatballs' movie pads popular story with bland filler

Pardon the awful butchering of the cliche about eating Chinese food and being hungry an hour later, but the best way to describe the new animated adventure, "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," is to compare it to a Chinese buffet. There's a dazzling array of treats, but there's a lot of filler, too.

The movie, playing in 3-D in some theaters, is based on the children's storybook written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett about a grandfather who shares an imaginative bedtime story about Chewandswallow, a magical land where three meals a day fall from the sky to feed everyone. When the weather suddenly becomes uncontrollable, the townsfolk leave their island and sail (on boats made of stale bread) to a strange land where people have to buy food.

That's it -- sweet and simple. It's a whimsical story, but it's also, as to be expected for a storybook, short. In trying to flesh it out into an 81-minute movie, writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller have created their own version of those tasty chicken balls at the buffet: There's a lot of breading covering that tiny morsel of chicken. Much worse than my bad metaphors: The two lads with me complained that "this movie isn't funny," "I'm bored" and "this isn't in 3-D." (Kids don't appreciate the depth perspective 3-D can give a film; they want lots of meatballs flying into their faces and that didn't happen.)

The script takes the premise of food falling from the sky, adds a story and a bunch of characters, namely young nerd Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader). He's the typical inventor we see in movies: nothing he does works, but he plugs along in hopes that he'll get it right and win respect.

Flint lives in Swallow Falls, a once bustling sardine canning town that has fallen on such hard times that the townsfolk are forced to eat sardines -- every day. Yuck. The mayor (Bruce Campbell) hopes that the opening of SardineLand (think Disney with lots of sardines and other fishy attractions) will save the town. Enter Flint, who manages to wreak havoc on SardineLand before it can open.

In hopes that he can make amends and feed the town something other than sardines, Flint pulls out his latest invention, and it's quite a mouthful: the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator or the FLDSMDFR.

Finally, cheeseburgers, complete with lettuce and tomatoes, fall from the sky. Just name a food, Flint says, and he can make it rain down. It's all great -- that is, until the food grows to proportions fit to feed the Amazing Colossal Man. Falling steaks crush tables. Hot dogs grow as tall as people. Watermelons and pancakes squish buildings. A spaghetti tornado swoops through town and those giant meatballs finally start to fall. The town is about to be destroyed unless our young hero and his pals, including Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), the TV weathergirl with the brains to match her beauty, can do something.

The film is colorful and funny but goes overboard with the bad food puns. Some familiar book images -- the Jell-O castle, a person with a giant elbow macaroni stuck on his head -- are well used in the film.

The script's sarcasm is biting -- especially the topics of eating too much and the endless hours people watch nonsense on the Internet -- but most of it will be wasted on its target audience. There are messages about being the person you are and the relationship between fathers and sons. It's nice, yes. But that slim children's storybook is even sweeter.

e-mail: truberto@buffnews.com

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>CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS

Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)

VOICES BY: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Mr. T

DIRECTORS: Christopher Miller, Phil Lord

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes

RATING: PG for mild brief language.

THE LOWDOWN: Based on a children's picture book about a town where food falls from the sky.

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