From what I know (which is far from everything) this movie went through the all-too typical bloodbath of hired and fired crews and directors before it found its way to the screen. Many who got burned during prior iterations were friends and colleagues of mine, which is a genuine shame. At one point early on even yours truly was invited to be considered to direct it, (they were probably kidding) and after a quick look at the book I practically ran out of the room shaking my head "NO!" It just seemed, as I told people at the time, that there was no story of any kind there: short, long, animated or otherwise. To me the book had the feel of something a particularly boring adult would find 'Imaginative': "Just think, children, if giant food fell from the sky one day!" To that adult I would say: "You know what else is funny? Big foam hats. Think about it: one day everybody wakes up wearing big foam hats! The president, Tyra Banks, Kofi Annan... C'mon--it's funny!..." Anyway, in a word: ugh.
None of the studio ideas that were on the table for getting around the book's inherent problems seemed promising to me, in fact they made it worse. Happily, the finished film's writer-director team (Phil Lord & Chris Miller) came up with a solution that tends to be so radical in the world of animation that it is usually rejected out of hand, or at best turned to only after everything else has failed, as a matter of dire last resort:
They allowed it to be a cartoon.
Because it is ultimately impossible to make the woefully dumb premise credible any other way. So at the concept level, they simply let it unfold in a cartoon town, on a cartoon island, in a cartoon world not unlike the ones in which many of the old Rankin/Bass or Jay Ward classics unfold. Somehow, just as radical: the cartoony sensibility (heaven forbid) even translates to cartoony visuals, which is a 2 for 2 situation that I have found rare. It is amazing how often I have heard this uniquely ubiquitous executive zen koan: "Well this is such a cartoony idea, we have to make it look realistic so that the cartooniness will be believable"...at which point my mind turns back to thinking about foam hats again.
Happily, that somehow didn't happen here: the characters are just about the cartooniest CG ones I have yet seen , and in a kind of 1970's Paul Coker MAD Magazine way: like those very rare very graphic 2D designs that somehow all get sculpted and articulated correctly. It's a genuine breakthrough and I hope it becomes a trend. God knows the Muppets and Rankin/Bass did it well over 40 years ago, so it can be done, even with pixels, as these guys have proved. After this, people won't be able to say: "Well, you can't do hair (or fingers, or eyes, or mouths etc) that way in CGI..." with the same conviction, even tho they probably will try...
As for the story, yeah it has all the familiar usual story beats studios have been programmed to demand and audiences have been hard-wired to expect, but it does the dual trick of servicing the beats legitimately on one level and using them just as an excuse for being funny on another. In addition, a lot of detailed care has been taken to make many of the throw-away visuals funnier than some movies' main jokes: a deliberately cheap TV ad with awful bluescreen effects and graphics, a recurring poster for a stage show called "FIVE GUYS WITH UMBRELLAS" and a graphic sensibility that is skillfully cribbed from the late 1970's and early 80's. A number of the situations, such as the hero phoning his roughneck dad to simply log on and email him a vital climax-clinching line of code, a binge-eating villain, a hopelessly clueless home-town has-been, and a reverse ugly duckling story for the female lead are especially clever.
Nice work, everybody. My next step is devouring the "making-of" book, as my way of coming back for seconds.