Lord knows, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the 2009 film that is more or less the reason that Sony Pictures Animation has any sort of brand name cachet at all, is not looking to break ground. It has a hapless male protagonist with a wacky animal sidekick, a ditzy girl supporting character, a doe-eyed moral about being true to your dreams no matter what anybody else says, far too many jokes where the punchline is "secondary character does an overwrought reaction shot", and a story that has been doing just fine for itself takes a sharp swerve into a third-act action sequence that really doesn't add much except loudness and chaos. And yet, my immediate response to it, after not even ten minutes, was that it's one of the very few major studio CGI animated features that's doing much of anything truly different. Which says much more about major studio animated features than Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but you take these things where you can get them.

The point being, between Pixar and DreamWorks setting the path for all of their direct competitors, there has been only one game in mainstream CG for the entire time that there has been such a thing: more or less realistic lighting and sets interacting with characters who are at least physically plausible, even if they suffer from any number of misshapen bodies. What CwaCoM brings, and I do not think I can name a film to precede that does the same thing, it utter, top-to-bottom silliness and unrealism; the film almost seems to take pride in how much its characters don't move like characters, how much their design is grotesque and impossibly exaggerated, and how capricious the rules governing their universe seem to be. Let us put it this way: if Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and all the more minor studios have largely been content to follow the Walt Disney Animation Studios approach (let us depict real movement and shapes as accurately as possible, even if the shapes and colors are unconventional), CwaCoM I think to be the first movie that follows what we could mostly accurately call the Looney Tunes approach: fuck physics, fuck subtlety, fuck plausible spaces. It is not a CG animated movie; it is a CG cartoon. This is a most gratifying thing, and even in the years since CwaCoM opened, I'm not certain that the same thing has been done again since except with Despicable Me. And I would not say that it was done as well there.

Let's hang on to that for a bit, because it's not the only important part. Maybe even not the most important part, though it is certainly what separates the film from the rest of the pack. But in addition to its aesthetic, the film boasts a remarkably good screenplay for a kid-targeting film released by a studio without a robust family films division at the time. Adapted from Judi & Ron Barrett's picture book so loosely that I think it would almost be fair not to count it, the directorial debut for the writing team of Phil Lord & Chris Miller focuses on a misunderstood nerd boy, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), who has for his whole life wanted to be an inventor, and makes the kind of starry-eyed devices of no real purpose that socially awkward nerd inventors are in love with in kids' movies. Let us limit ourselves to saying that he's managed to alienate the entire community of Swallow Falls, the economically devastated sardine-fishing town that's the sole habitation on an island in the mid-Atlantic, and his last stab at a world-changing invention is a food-generator, which creates meals out of nothing but water.

A disastrous test sends the device rocketing in the sky, where it sets up shop in the cloud banks perpetually hovering over Swallow Falls; and you can pretty much see where it plays out, I hope. Interacting with the moisture in the clouds, Flint's machine causes it to rain food: cheeseburgers, ice cream, and everything else the townsfolk can think to ask for. This meteorological marvel is all set to save the town's economy, but at the expense of the safety of the world, for of course the machine breaks down and starts to destroy famous monuments all over the world with specially-tailored attacks of food.

Hokum, of course, but hokum with at least a couple of differences: one is that it's the most joyfully absurd kids movies that the modern century has produced, refusing in the first place to give us a straight man - Flint's dad (James Caan) would almost count, but even he generates quite a few jokes with his brush-shaped facial hair and unseen eyes - and making all of the side characters equally weird in all sorts of different ways. It's a comedy free-for-all, basically, with every warped idea that Lord and Miller can come up with given a loving home, and the whole thing feels like a constant escalation: the monkey with the voice box (Neil Patrick Harris) whose vocabulary consists entirely of nouns in his line of sight gives way to the cop (Mr. T) wearing gym shorts and gruffly spouting authoritative commands that make very little sense, and so on and on until the film finally runs out of new non-sequiturs and has to resort to an action climax just to get things wrapped up in any linear way.

The other thing is that the characters are oddly strong, almost so that you don't notice it. Most importantly, the romantic lead, meteorologist intern Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), is a satire of all the problematic women in children's movies: she's incredibly smart and geeky, and when she deliberately acts dumb so as to not seem too well-read, it always confuses and disappoints Flint; she makes herself prettier by putting her hair up and wearing huge glasses; she has agency and her own sets of goals that complement Flint's, but are not subsumed by them (she does not interact with another named female, that I can recall, but this is an unusually smart kid's movie, not a miracle from God on high).

But pretty much all of the characters are better than their stock types let on, owing in part to a uniformly terrific voice cast (Bruce Campbell as the selfish mayor and Andy Samberg as a pathetic aging child star round things out; Benjamin Bratt has a tiny side role, but it is well done), owing in part to writing which differentiates all of them by their various comic tones, making them each feel like they have a separate personality that nonetheless come from the same place overall.

And also, the characters are a hell of a lot of fun to look at: the style is alien and weird in little doses (I avoided the film in '09 in no small part because I thought the trailers were gross), but it's admirable how quickly one acclimates to the design after being fully immersed in it, and realising that the harshly angular body movements and protuberant faces are all deliberately there to add to the sense of wacky, illogical cartoon fun; and also realising that the huge eyes with variable iris sizes are unusually well-suited to quickly expressing emotions in hugely appealing, even cute ways. The whole thing is like watching old-fashioned animation principals (physics and movement from the '50s, expressions from the '30s) given life using fancy-ass 21st Century toys, and it's a lot of fun. Lord and Miller even manage to sneak a few outright lovely gestures into their sprawling cartoon world, like the way that Flint's various experiments offer up the only fully-saturated colors in the grey-on-grey world of Swallow Falls.

It falls apart towards the end; there's no papering over that. Too much sound and fury, too much slapdash moralising, too many neat bows tying up the plotlines. That, unfortunately, is the price we pay for Pixar's run of masterpieces in the '00s: animated American movies with formulaic, jarring final acts. But taking that as a consequence of the genre, CwaCoM acquits itself quite well indeed, and everything happens before that that point hits is delirious fun; until it goes south, this is about as visually entertaining and as consistently amusing as any non-Pixar animated film of its generation, and you can't say a lot more for Hollywood animation than that.