Ah, parallel development. Just 4 months ago we had an animated film about supervillains, and now we have another one. Despicable Me was released by Universal Studios, who is somewhat of an also-ran in the animated movie race - and its most illustrious credit is producer Chris Meledandri, who made the Ice Age series, which, well, speaks for itself. Megamind, on the other hand, is made by DreamWorks Animation; they're no Pixar, but they have been on a roll lately with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. On the gripping hand, their roll has only started lately; all this while they've been known as the studio that makes derivative kiddie crap. Two well-regarded releases aren't enough to change that reputation just yet.
Nor will this one do it. But at least it's a good deal better than Despicable Me.
The blue-skinned, macrocephalic alien Megamind (Will Ferrell) is the supervillain of Metro City and the arch-nemesis of Metro Man (Brad Pitt) - a rivalry forged since infancy when both came to Earth as the sole survivors of dying planets. But owing to drastically different upbringings, one became a beloved hero and the other, a despised outcast, with only his loyal minion Minion (David Cross) - a fish in a robot gorilla body - for company. But one day, the unthinkable happens - Megamind finally defeats Metro Man for good, as witnessed by intrepid reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) and the whole of Metro City. His elation soon turns to boredom, however, and he yearns for new challenges as well as a return to the old ones. He seeks the former by romancing Roxanne, albeit disguised as some guy named Bernard - and he aims to satisfy the latter by creating a new superhero with Metro Man's powers, picking Roxanne's cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill) for the job.
Yeah, movie, I see what you did there. You're spoofing Superman. You're speculating what would happen if Lex Luthor finally killed Superman, and that maybe he's not such a bad sort after all, maybe he's just misunderstood, maybe he could become good if only that strutting Mr. Goody Two Shoes were out of the way. Not that we'd want to see this in an actual Superman story - because come on, archetypes are archetypes - but it's a neat premise on which to hang a somewhat-satirical take on superheroes. And the movie does a generally smart and witty job at overturning the conventions and earning sympathy for it's good bad guy. (Or is that bad good guy...)
Because come on, who doesn't root for the underdog? And the movie takes special care to cement Megamind as the underdog; the prologue portrays him as the prototypical well-meaning bullied kid, whereas Metro Man and all the adulation he receives - exceeded only by his love for himself - is very easy to hate. Not a subtle approach to earning the audience's sympathy for the antihero, but it works. Equally unsubtle is pitting him against a bona fide unsympathetic villain, but this one works a little better for being another inversion of the superhero/supervillain dynamic. Hal, going by his new moniker of Titan, has all the trappings of a hero, but is far more petty, self-centered and destructive than Megamind ever was. This, plus his romance with Roxanne, are the catalysts for his transformation from villain to hero, and it's always neat to see a movie that takes pains to make its protagonist earn his character arc.
The funny thing is that it may have went to too great pains. You expect an animated film to be laugh-a-minute and thrill-a-minute; Pixar especially are masters of this kind of boundlessly entertaining filmmaking that yet never sacrifices storytelling. Megamind often feels slow - especially in its later half, leading up to the big action-packed climax, which feels like character after character making one heartfelt speech after another. This plus the many obscure joke references ("Space Dad" a la Don Corleone is a particularly clever one - if you get it) makes for a family-friendly movie that curiously goes a little too far in the "fun for adults too!" direction; the kids in my audience were noticeably restless and bored at many parts.
But hey, they're kids, they don't know anything. (Seriously, they don't. If you were to judge popular entertainment by how much children like it, you'd have to hail Barney & Friends as a masterpiece.) And when the pace picks up it picks up good, with action scenes that feel as big and spectacular as a good superhero movie ought to, and that's something not all superhero movies do well. It's got Will Ferrell, who probably improvised a lot of his own dialogue; he's funny enough, although quirks like Megamind's frequent mispronunciation of words feel like someone's icing on someone else's cake. And it's got Tina Fey and David Cross, who have been much, much funnier elsewhere - watch this for a sampling of what Cross can do - but at least they're perfectly competent here.
So it's a perfectly, inoffensively enjoyable movie. Never as good as anything from Pixar, but at least never as lazy and pandering as Despicable Me either. It isn't gonna crown DreamWorks the new king of animated films or anything, but one thing it does do is highlight how their approach to filmmaking differs from Pixar's. To summarise that linked article's salient points, while Pixar creates unique and wildly original story worlds, DreamWorks is content to play with established genres and tropes. Which makes for much better - and smarter - movies than mere funny talking animals, even if they
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Expectations: Tony Scott, please don't do another Tony Scott