Posted by: Dan | January 11, 2013

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Taught My Kids to Love the Energy Company

It's raining sunshine!

It’s raining sunshine!

1. Down the Rabbit Hole

If you want to surprise yourself after you watch “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” ask this question: who is the protagonist in this story and who is the antagonist?  In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? (And, yes, they are both guys.)

Once you ask this question you realize something surprising: the person you might otherwise imagine to be the bad guy — Flint Lockwood, who almost destroys the entire world — is actually the protagonist.  He’s the fellow we’ve been rooting for.  If that’s the case, who is the bad guy?  The Mayor.  Of course, we are groomed from the beginning to root for Flint and to dislike the Mayor — Flint has a backs story and we first meet him as a wide-and-starry-eyed child who is bullied by his peers but loved by his mother (who dies while he is young, leaving him with a gruff but loving father who doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with his boy).  Unlike Flint, the Mayor has no back story — I didn’t even know that he had a name until I looked the movie up on IMDB.

Flint = good; Mayor = bad.  Everything unfolds from this.  And down the rabbit hole we go…

2.  Friends and Enemies and You

Who or what is Flint Lockwood?  Well, we know he is something of a dreamer and an inventor.  He is a bit nerdy, sometimes a bit misguided, but always well-intentioned.  After a number of failed efforts, he does something of great significance: he invents a machine that causes it to rain food, thereby revitalizing the economy of a town that was dying and creating access to a resource that was quite limited (previously, the folks in Flint’s town lived off of sardines).  Food, of course, provides people with energy — Flint is an energy provider.

However, Flint’s method of resource extraction ends up producing some less-than-ideal results.  The amount of waste produced is staggering and, although everyone ignores it (Flint invents a machine called “The OutOfSighter” to catapult the waste out of sight and out of mind), it piles up on the horizon and threatens to tumble down and annihilate the town.  As if that’s not bad enough, the mass production of this resource also results in an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy the entire planet.

Does this story sound familiar to anybody?  It should.  Flint isn’t just any energy provider, he’s Big Oil.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood's character.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood’s character.

So, if that’s who Flint is, who is the Mayor?  Well, let’s look at the way he speaks about himself in the first behind the scenes shot we have of him:

This hellhole is too small for me, Brent. I wanna be big. I want people to look at me and say, “That is one big mayor.” And that’s why this has to work. It has to work. Otherwise, I’m just a tiny mayor of a tiny town full of tiny sardine-sucking knuckle-scrapers.

Of course, the mayor very quickly does become big… very big.

Before

Before

After

After

So the oil company is the good guy and the Mayor is the bad guy and the bad guy wants to be big… do I really need to explain this?  The antagonist in this film is big government.  Yes, you see, the problems arise because the government wants to exploit the kindly, good-hearted but somewhat naive energy producer in order to gain wealth and status.  Flint just wants to make everybody’s lives better — the Mayor wants to be big.  Because of this the Mayor pushes Flint to do things he would not do otherwise.  Flint realizes that things are getting somewhat out of control and dangerous and wants to pull the plug — but the Mayor talks him out of it and then, when that fails, the Mayor breaks Flint’s machine to prevent him from pulling the plug.  Then, when disaster strikes, the Mayor abandons the town to try and make his own escape at the expense of others.  Big government is not your friend.

But there is another enemy lurking here, somebody else who is to blame for all of this.  Who is this hidden enemy who also helps to drive the world to the brink of destruction?  You.  You see, if you weren’t demanding that the energy provider continually flood the market with more and more and more, everything would have been just fine.  The energy provider was ever only trying to make you happy.  After all, unlike the Mayor, Flint was never motivated by a desire for wealth, or power or status.  Sure, he wanted to be loved by others (who doesn’t?) and maybe that blinded him a little, but isn’t that true of all of us?

3. Vindication and Salvation

All of this is beautifully explained in a speech that the police officer, Earl, makes to the townspeople when they are intent on lynching Flint because they blame him for the disaster.  As they rock Flint’s car back and forth, Earl jumps in to restore order and says:

This mess we’re in is all our faults. Me, I didn’t even protect my own son. Look, I’m as mad at Flint as you are. In fact, when he gets out of that car, I’m gonna slap him in the face. I know Flint Lockwood made the food, but it was made-to-order. And now it’s time for all of us to pay the bill.

So, you see, BP, TransCanada, Keystone XL, Imperial Oil, none of them are to blame for any of this mess.  We are.  If the oil companies are guilty of anything it’s of trying too hard to make us happy and to be loved by us.

This is all your fault.

This is all your fault.

Notice, also, that it is a police officer making this speech in the movie.  Earl is the representative of the rule of law in this film, and the law vindicates Flint.  Sure, he may deserve a slap… but even that is barely enacted, and Earl quickly apologizes to Flint for slapping him (but, don’t worry, Flint is such a nice guy that he responds by saying, “That’s okay”!).  So, really, the law punishes the energy provider more to placate the people than to serve justice (and, of course, out of love for the people, the energy provider goes along with it… just like good ol’ Tony Hayward who pretty much died for our sins).

Not only does the law vindicate Flint but it is right to do so — for Flint is the one who ends up saving everybody in the end.  How does he do this?  With further technological advances.  Specifically, he invents a flying car that permits him to gain access to the machine in the sky that has gone haywire so that he can prevent a catastrophe.

That he uses a flying car is significant — aren’t flying cars the symbol of a future when technology has produced a wonderful world for us wherein anything is possible and all our problems have been solved?  The solution, then, is not to abandon any of our technological advances but to trust in technology to miraculously save us from an impending disaster that appears to be unavoidable and catastrophic.  If this also sounds like a familiar story it should — the oil companies have been saying the same thing to us for years about climate change.

4.  Conclusion: Stop Worrying…

All told, the message here is this: any environmental catastrophe we are experiencing was produced by self-serving politicians and greedy consumers exploiting well-intentioned energy providers.  The solution, then, is to not cast stones, except at big government, and wait for BP to save us, just like Flint saves the townspeople in the film.

So, really, if this is anything to go on (and anybody with children should break out in a sweat from 3:10-3:40, although the previous minutes provide the necessary context for that segment), by watching this movie I’ve been preparing my child to view the world in a certain way — a way that favours the narrative of the oil giants and a way that brackets out other narratives.  This is how I’ve been teaching Charlie to stop worrying and love the bomb.

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