Ack! So close! DreamWorks Animation hinted at an evolution beyond their signature style of filmmaking – disposable movies littered with dated pop culture references and gross-out comedy – with this year’s thoughtful How to Train Your Dragon. Now here comes Megamind, a film that, in the shadow of HTTYD, feels like a step backwards. Many of the jokes are obvious, and they’re soundtracked by Guns N Roses and The Carpenters. But really, this comes as no surprise. Pixar has conditioned us to expect a life-affirming masterpiece every year; we’ve been similarly trained by DreamWorks to anticipate a somewhat enjoyable, cookie-cutter cartoon when they’re at the bat. So let’s forget about the enduring DreamWorks vs. Pixar debate (for the moment, anyhow) and discuss the way in which Megamind works as a superhero movie; in spite of its genetic curse and regrettable heritage.
The plot of Megamind reads like a hypothetical question from a Psychology 101 textbook on nature vs. nurture. Two alien babies escape their soon-to-be-sucked-into-a-black-hole planet and crash land on Earth. One of the two finds himself at the doorstop of a well-to-do family, who – impressed by his super strength and ability to fly – fill him with confidence, righteousness and the idea that he is the saviour of the universe. The other baby – blue, with a giant head, and no super powers besides extreme intelligence – lands in a prison. One of these babies will become Metro Man (Brad Pitt), the meticulously-coifed hero of Metro City. The other shall become Megamind (Will Ferrell), Metro Man’s ever-scheming arch-nemesis. Now, guess which one is which! Where this film differs from most superhero flicks is that it follows the exploits of the villain, particularly after he overthrows the hero and finds himself without purpose.
Ferrell is funny enough as Megamind, although it’s hard not to imagine how the film would play in an alternate universe in which Robert Downey Jr. voices the blue-headed baddie. The design of the character – seemingly left over from when eyebrow-actor-extraordinaire RDJ was lined up to star as Megamind – never quite meshes with Ferrell’s voice. It’s a case of voice actor and character design clashing, and as a result, our hero seems a little off. Director Tom McGrath and his crew would have been wise to redesign the character from scratch, or continue their search for an actor who could better embody their protagonist. (But no, such is DreamWorks’ insistence on having big names in their cast; you don’t see Pixar hiring Justin Timberlake to voice octogenarian Carl in Up!) Tina Fey and Jonah Hill are better suited to their characters; Fey as jaded-journo Roxanne Richter (with whom Megamind falls in love), and Hill as her creepy cameraman Hal. David Cross offers a few laughs as Megamind’s minion, named, umm, Minion.
The film is at its best during the scenes of furious action; specifically when Megamind is doing battle with his foes throughout Metro City, creating more carnage than in Michael Bay’s combined filmography. In 2005′s The Incredibles, director Brad Bird took advantage of CG-animation and crafted perfectly choreographed, breathless action sequences; Tom McGrath does the same here. However, this isn’t the only way that Megamind – the movie, not the character – is guilty of mimicking its older, more sophisticated step-brother. When Megamind finally bests Metro Man, he turns Hal into a superhero named Titan to restore the balance of good and evil (and create for himself a worthy opponent). But Titan, a wannabe-hero-turned-bad-guy crammed full of emotional issues, is merely a retread of The Incredibles’ villain Syndrome. That being said, the film deserves at least some credit for offering some darker thematic cues than we usually see in a children’s film. Megamind – the character now; keep up! – strolls the Metro Man-free Metro City like Alexander the Great; weeping, for there are no more worlds to conquer. His entire concept of right and wrong is turned upside down; even he knows he shouldn’t be victorious. Screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons clearly intend to imbue the film with some pathos, and the resulting product is a serviceable parable about “being good” that is aimed low enough to at least connect with the kids in the audience. A shame then that the film’s sense of humour occasionally slips into groan-worthy territory; I counted at least three ‘wedgie’ jokes, and there’s a good chance I missed some.
Megamind arrives in Australian cinemas December 9, 2010.