Tripper Harrison is the head counselor of a group of new counselors-in-training (CITs) at Camp North Star, a cut-rate summer camp. Camp director Morty Melnick falls victim to Tripper's practical jokes mainly by being taken from his cabin in the middle of the night and relocated to an unusual place.
Rudy Gerner, a lonely boy who is sent to summer camp by his father, decides to run away from camp to a nearby bus station. Noticing Rudy is unable to fit in, Tripper takes him under his wing and each morning they go jogging and bond as friends. Tripper helps Rudy gain confidence while Rudy encourages Tripper to start a romance with Roxanne, the female head counselor. Love is also in the air for many of the CIT's; Candace "kidnaps" Crockett in a speedboat and confesses her feelings for him. Wheels, who had broken up with A.L. the year before, successfully rekindles their relationship during a dance. The nerdy Spaz develops a crush on Jackie.
A subplot deals with the camp's rivalry with the wealthy Camp Mohawk, located across the lake. During a basketball game, North Star is being beaten by Mohawk when they attempt their own perverse form of victory. This sets the stage for the yearly Olympiad held between the camps in which Mohawk carries a 12-0 record.
During the first day of competition, Mohawk dominates North Star, cheating in many cases to win. Crockett fails to clear the high jump bar, Hardware gets pummeled in boxing, and Jackie suffers a broken leg in field hockey, thanks to the dirty work of two Mohawk girls. The score at the end of Day One is: Mohawk 170, North Star 63. That evening at the North Star Lodge, Tripper gives a rousing speech, telling the demoralized campers that it doesn't matter whether they win or lose. In unison, Camp North Star begins to chant, "It just doesn't matter!" Day Two of the Olympiad belongs to newly inspired North Star as they win every event. Wheels outwrestles his opponent, Spaz defeats Rhino in a stacking contest with inspiration from Jackie and a thwarted Mohawk cheating attempt, and, after 12 years of North Star defeats, Fink finally beats "The Stomach" in the hot dog eating contest. North Star now trails by only 10 points with one event left, a four-mile cross country run for 20 points. Tripper steps forward and selects a surprised Rudy to compete against Horse, Mohawk's star runner. The many mornings Rudy spent jogging and training with Tripper pay off as he wins the race, giving North Star its first Olympiad victory by a score of 230–220.
Later that evening, Morty, Tripper, Roxanne, and the CITs sing around a campfire and say their final goodbyes as the camp prepares to close for the summer. Rudy has already decided to return to camp next year and Roxanne agrees to live with Tripper. The two ride off on Tripper's motorcycle, leading the buses out of camp and leaving Morty behind, in bed, on a raft in the middle of the lake.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 75% based on 32 reviews.
The film's score was written by Elmer Bernstein and several musicians also contributed to the soundtrack including Mary MacGregor (performing "Good Friend"), David Naughton (performing "Makin' It"), and Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots (performing the title theme "Meatballs"). "Good Friend" and "Makin' It" made the Billboard and Cashbox pop charts (see below).Makin' It (by David Naughton) (Billboard #5, Cashbox #5) / Still Makin' It (instrumental of A-side) -- RSO 916—1979
Good Friend (by Mary MacGregor) (Billboard #39, Cashbox #44) / Rudy and Tripper (dialogue from film) -- RSO 938—1979
Meatballs RSO 1-3056 (Billboard #170, August 1979)Side one
- "Are You Ready for the Summer" – North Star Camp Kids Chorus
- "Rudy and Tripper" (instrumental)
- "Makin' It" – David Naughton
- "Moondust" – Terry Black
- "C.I.T. Song" – Original Cast
- "Good Friend" – Mary MacGregor
- "Olympiad" (instrumental)
- "Meatballs" – Rick Dees
- "Rudy Wins the Race" (instrumental)
- "Moondust (Reprise)" – Terry Black
- "Are You Ready for the Summer (Reprise)" – North Star Camp Kids Chorus
Meatballs was first released on DVD in 1999 by HBO (although Paramount Pictures was behind the original theatrical release and the first VHS and Selectavision release in the 1980s, and also continues to hold international video rights.) Sony Pictures Entertainment issued a special-edition DVD (with an anamorphic transfer, a director's commentary, and a "Making of" featurette) on June 5, 2007. The sequels did not receive the same treatment of re-release. However, Lionsgate released the Blu-ray on June 12, 2012, which retains the commentary from the Sony DVD but not the featurette.
Meatballs was followed by three sequels: Meatballs Part II (1984), Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986) and Meatballs 4 (1992). None of the sequels involved either Ivan Reitman or Bill Murray. Only Meatballs III had any relation to the story or characters of the original, featuring Patrick Dempsey as Rudy Gerner (replacing Chris Makepeace from the original film). The sequels featured raunchier humor on par with popular contemporary teen sex comedies like Porky's (1982) and Revenge of the Nerds (1984). The sequels all received negative reviews, and failed to make a profit at the box office. In 2010, development of a remake of Meatballs was announced by Lionsgate, with John Whitesell attached to direct a script by Sean Anders and John Morris.