I'm reviewing Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and How to Train Your Dragon together. I'll explain this later. First, the movies.
I liked them both a great deal, and Meatballs has actually become one of my favorite CGI films. Meatballs is an immensely energetic film, filled to bursting with color, life, comedy, and a few points of genuine pathos.
The film managed to keep energy levels at a near-frantic state for the entirety of the film, with small lulls just preventing us from being overloaded. The characters are all a bit two-dimensional, but being simple is not the same thing as simplistic. The character design is actually different from Pixar, which is nice. And by different, I don't mean grossly inferior, like Hoodwinked. The animation is also lively and well-done. The characters all have different personalities based on their animation, and not just how they look.
Flint Lockwood, the manic inventor, is made out of rubber. His father, a down-to-Earth sort of guy is rigid and block-like. Steve the monkey moves in spastic spurts. It's all very well done. While on the subject of that monkey, he is both the default cute side-kick that cartoons need, but he is also integral to the story when the father and son have a closing conversation. Oh, and how fantastic is it that Steve is voiced by Doogie Howser?
Moving on to How to Train Your Dragon, this is a much more traditional story. It's more suited to a slightly older demographic. That's not to say that Meatballs won't entertain people of all ages, only that its energy and color means that even the very young will love it. Dragon might bore the the tiny childers.
The character design, the constructs, the animation, everything is much more rigid, here. This has generally been the rule in Dreamwork's ouvre. Going all the way back to Antz and Shrek, Dreamworks has chosen to use very rigid character models with a minimum of flex. This has presented problems in the past, where character is not communicated in motion, only in design and voice. And when the voice and character design are bland, like in Madagascar and Shark Tale, the film suffers.
Dreamworks animators have made great strides in extracting character from rigid designs, and they do a good job, here. The characters are all decently three-dimensional, even though many of them are only as deep as their position in the script requires.
The script is perfectly paced and moves along with the lean effectiveness that we expect from a 90-minute CGI film. It has some nice themes of understanding that give the story a sense of depth. The action scenes have great energy, the dialog is snappy, and the whole endeavor is very entertaining. It all culminates in an eye-popping final battle that, in the theater, was truly a site to behold.
Now on to why I'm reviewing them together. For some reason, CGI films, moreso than traditioally animated ones, seem to work in thematic waves. Considering the development times required for these films, I'm pretty confident that copying is not happening, but SOMETHING is. It's just too much to be coincidence.
For example, The first CGI film from Dreamworks, Antz, came out six weeks before A Bug's Life. Then Monsters Inc. came out with Shrek. Finding Nemo was followed by Shark Tale a year later. Madagascar, Open Season, and The Wild (and even Flushed Away to a degree). Hoodwinked and Happily N'Ever After. Megamind and Despicable Me. Delgo and Battle For Terra, and a little bit of Planet 51, Wall-E, and 9). All of them have similar themes, if not characters, settings, and stories.
This and Meatballs are the same thing. Both stories are about a misunderstood young man, who has great potential, has problems relating to his father, meets a girl who's his equal but different, screws things up, saves the day in an epic battle with a giant thing, saves everyone and wins the girl. That short synopsis applies identically to both films. WTF? What is it? Some outside variable? Studies about what would do well in today's market? Some script gets passed around and everyone steals it? What?!