REVIEW: Aggressively Amusing Megamind Too Mega for Its Own Good
There may be no grand sociological explanation for it, but 2010 has brought us two animated films whose heroes are actually so-bad-they're-good villains. The first was Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's diabolically wonderful Despicable Me, in which Steve Carell provides the voice of a pot-bellied, beak-nosed crankypants whose stone-cold heart is warmed by a trio of orphanettes. Now Dreamworks Animation offers its own entry in the mini-genre with Megamind, featuring Will Ferrell as an alien baddie with a bulbous noggin who realizes, too late, that an evildoer without a counterpart do-gooder is like Lex Luthor with no Superman: When there's no one around to make you look truly bad, the best you can aspire to is mediocrity.
Megamind itself rises above mediocrity, though perhaps just barely. As the perennial second-banana to the fearsomely beloved behemoth Pixar, Dreamworks Animation has had to work hard to gain a foothold with moviegoers: Despite the dazzling success of the early Shrek pictures, the studio is also responsible for stingerless little pictures like Bee Movie. And how, exactly, do you grab a bigger market share of the popular imagination? I suppose you come up with hipper characters, more insidery pop-culture in-jokes, more technically dazzling animation. Dreamworks seems to be coming closer to figuring out that elusive formula, at least with the reasonably enjoyable How to Train Your Dragon, released earlier this year.
Megamind -- directed by Tom McGrath, who also made the two Madagascar movies -- is another step in the right direction, at least if we're talking about filling a movie with groovier zingers and peopling it with characters whose motives aren't always boringly, predictably pure. Megamind, not unlike Superman, was shuttled in infancy to Planet Earth by his birth parents; the baby who would grow up to be his arch-rival, the annoyingly good Metro Man (Brad Pitt), arrived at the same time, though he was raised by affluent, kindly parents who gave him every advantage. On the other hand, Megamind's childseat-slash-spaceship landed within the walls of a prison for the "criminally gifted"; he was raised by genius criminals who taught him that it's good to be bad.
Megamind learns to embrace his badness, and by adulthood, he's made a habit of dropping into the local metropolis -- it's called Metrocity, though he insists on pronouncing it so it rhymes with "atrocity" -- to kidnap the local curvy-cutie news reporter, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). The lantern-jawed, highly principled and thoroughly full-of-himself Metroman responds, invariably, by rescuing her. But on one of these occasions, Metroman is miraculously, accidentally vanquished. Megamind, with his trusty minion at his side (a fishlike creature who happens to be called Minion, and whose voice belongs to David Cross), takes over the city, only to learn that terrorizing the citizens is no fun at all when Metroman's not around. His response to that problem is less a solution than an excuse for the movie's writers -- Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons -- to indulge in some excessively convoluted plot mechanics involving a substitute good-guy superhero, a transformed nerd known as Titan (Jonah Hill).
Megamind has plenty going for it, not least a physically elegant frontman with a meticulously groomed mini-beard and lavender-blue skin; this is a very metrosexual Megamind. Roxanne, with her pixie haircut and wardrobe of pencil skirts, is appealing enough. And there are dashes of visual magnificence here and there: the Metroman Museum -- which Megamind takes over and, of course, trashes -- resembles a cross between Washington Mall, Rockefeller Center and the Emerald City of Oz.
The problem is that the jokes in Megamind are always a little too self-aware to be delectably naughty. As with so many of the Dreamworks Animation movies -- even some of the better ones -- there's always an obvious point behind their cleverness; these movies never take the liberty of just throwing a joke away, which is often the best and most surprising way to get laughs. When Megamind takes over Metrocity, he papers the streets with posters mimicking Shepherd Fairey's now-famous Obama campaign posters, only these feature Megamind's scowling visage emblazoned with the scolding legend, "No, you can't." Sure, it's a clever touch -- but there's something a little too smarty-pants about it, too, particularly when you consider that it isn't just a quickly glimpsed image (the way, say, a master like Chuck Jones would have used it). We see it numerous times, so there are plenty of chances for the gag to register -- and to die.
And when Megamind appears before the masses, trying to look tough, AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" is his preferred soundtrack; the problem is, the tape keeps toggling over to Minnie Riperton's "Lovin' You," just one of many clues that Megamind is really just a megasoftie. The joke is sturdy enough conceptually, but it comes at us with a heavy "pong" instead of a light-as-air "ping." The problem with Megamind is that it wants to remind us, every minute, how smart it is -- and that sets it a world apart from Despicable Me, which is courageous enough to revel in its own silliness. Megamind tries too hard and ultimately achieves less. It's undone by its own inferiority complex.