Just two months after Steve Carell made evil lovable in “Despicable Me,” one can be forgiven for thinking “Megamind” is a case of been there, vanquished that.
But the new take on the life of a supervillain is a refreshing and original tweak on the superhero mythos, delivering smart laughs and capping a banner year for DreamWorks animation, which also released the sublime “How to Train Your Dragon.” If it hadn’t been for the latest “Shrek” debacle, they’d be competing with Pixar in terms of consistency.
Megamind (Will Ferrell) is a blue-skinned, big-brained menace constantly trying to defeat superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt), guardian of Metro City. The two have had a rivalry going back to infancy, when both were launched from their dying planets to Earth to fulfill their destinies. Metro Man crash-landed onto a wealthy estate where he discovered superpowers, loving parents and the adulation of his peers. Megamind landed in a prison and has a pet fish named Minion (David Cross).
After years of battle and to everyone’s surprise—including his own—Megamind accomplishes the unthinkable: he destroys Metro Man. With his arch nemesis out of the way, the villain can now rule Metro City with an iron fist. But soon, defacing works of art and playing target practice with fire trucks grows old, and Megamind finds himself in an existential funk: what good is being a villain if there’s no hero to challenge? Once you’ve conquered the world, what else is there for you?
A cleverly-skewed and thinly-veiled take on the Superman story, “Megamind” has a great time playing with superhero conventions in much the same manner as the original “Shrek” did with fairy tales. Where “Despicable Me” had fun playing with the idea of making a supervillain sympathetic, “Megamind” cleverly subverts the superhero genre and presents some genuinely intriguing questions about its conventions. When Megamind discovers he has no more heroes to vanquish and sets out to make his own hero (Jonah Hill), he fails to realize that super DNA and a flashy costume alone don’t make a hero and winds up making the situation much worse. There’s also a funny and surprisingly affecting romance between Megamind and his favorite victim, reporter Roxie Ritchie (Tina Fey).
DreamWorks’ animated films have traditionally relied too heavily on comedic personalities, lazily plugging in dated pop culture references and jokes meant only for the parents in the crowd. Like “Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda,” however, “Megamind” lets the comedians develop full characters—Megamind may be a villain with a bit of a reading problem, but there’s a bit of sadness Ferrell allows to seep into the character as well. He and Fey have a clever rapport with each other and the characters’ romance has the same sweetness that the “Shrek” franchise showed in its best moments. Pitt is clearly having a ball sending up his hunk persona and there are some great laughs to be had at tweaking Metro Man’s Boy Scout image.
Yes, Megamind finds his heart and, yes, everything builds to a happy ending. But the route that “Megamind” takes to get there is full of some clever and frequently hilarious twists and turns. The dialogue is witty, full of Ferrell’s randomness and Fey’s smart alec charm. The action sequences are surprisingly energetic and had me wondering why directors don’t just stop and make the next Superman movie a computer-generated adventure. The use of 3D, seemingly required in every family film these days, is actually quite effective. Kids will love the comic book heroics and adults will get a good laugh at the way the film twists and turns familiar tropes (I was particularly pleased with Ferrell’s nod to Marlon Brando’s work in “Superman.”)
“Megamind” isn’t the first film this year to subvert superhero conventions and, with Rainn Wilson’s “Super” in the pipeline, it’s not the last. But it happens to be one of the most clever and enjoyable yet and definitely saves the day for DreamWorks.