Megamind speaks to the biggest problem with DreamWorks Animation: they’re as unreliable as an alcoholic father at Christmas. With each film you don’t know if you’re coming downstairs to find a house full of gifts or bupkis. DreamWorks began by chasing after the success of early 90’s Disney with a series of animated films that left everyone wanting (ooh, Prince of Egypt… Road to El Dorado!) But it was Shrek and the move to computer generated animation that showed they could be the Warner Brothers to Pixar’s Walt Disney. They could be Michael Jackson to Pixar’s Prince (Shrek 2 is still the most successful animated film ever made). The Poison to Pixar’s Motley Crue. They may not have the heart, but they could – at their best – tweak pop culture enough to be successful with both children and parents.
But even when they’re good, they’re never consistent. They don’t have the quality control that the Pixar factory has. And even with the improvements of Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind falls into the misfire pile. This is unfortunate, because there are a lot of great ideas in the film, and a lot of talented performers.
Will Ferrell stars as Megamind, an alien sent to Earth as his planet is dying. Yep, just like Superman. But at the exact same time he’s sent to earth, so is Metro Man (Brad Pitt), who is the actual Superman surrogate. And from the moment Metro Man lands he bumps Megamind away from the nice family, and into a prison. The two grow up together; Megamind practices his smarts while Metro flies and charms everyone with his effortless skills as an ubermensch. The film has a really strong hook – everyone’s been around someone who seems to get everything without having to work for it and Megamind’s jealousy and hatred is empathetic. Megamind has no real friends besides his fish-like sidekick Minion (David Cross), and he grows up to be an arch villain, while Metro Man has no problem keeping the big city safe from Megamind. Ace reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) is often kidnapped by Megamind and rescued by Metro Man – everyone thinks they’re dating – while her cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill) has a not-so-secret crush on her.
To review this film there’s some first act spoilers: After Metro Man is presented with a tremendous statue in his honor, Megamind captures Metro Man, and it seems copper is his kryptonite. Having finally found Metro Man’s weakness, Megamind then blows up Metro Man’s location.
So, it’s a comic book movie told from the villain’s perspective, but one in which he wins early on. This opens up a very interesting question: What would a Lex Luthor do with no more worlds to conquer? (Of course, the real answer is “kill all the ______s”, but that’s not this film) Here Megamind is superficially happy, but unsatisfied because he was so used to his Sisyphean struggle. At first he starts hanging out with Roxanne in disguise, and she admits that she and Metro Man – even though he constantly rescued her – had zero chemistry together (the sexual subtext of this is never dealt with). This leads to Megamind romancing Roxanne under that disguise, and also lightening up. But he needs a nemesis, so he clones Metro Man’s powers from a piece of his dandruff (Hey, Superman IV references) and zaps Hal, who he then trains under the guise of Marlon Brando (they don’t shirk away from their obvious references). But Hal, renamed Titan – has no interest in truth, justice, and the American way, and so he quickly descends into arch villainy himself. The Brando stuff is where the film shows its weaknesses – it’s not a particularly funny joke, so it’s more a reference for people who remember a 30 year old movie. I guess the character’s short and lispy.
Megamind has all the elements of what could make for a pretty great movie, but it’s lacking narrative drive or invention – I kept waiting for it to be fun. The core conceits are wonderful for comic book fans, but the film never builds on them in such a way that its formula sensibilities ever amount to much. It’s telling that one of the children sitting near me got bored halfway through the movie and just started playing in the front row until her father sat her down (she kept getting up, though). The whole film feels like a good idea that needed some goosing it just didn’t get. There’s lot of stuff that is theoretically interesting, but it doesn’t feel connected (Megamind and Titan’s relationship should have more weight than it does).
DreamWorks hires a lot of talented performers but often that heightens the disconnect from the voice to the CGI. Ferrell is funny but distracting. He’s got some comic mannerisms that feel forced (mispronunciation), and though his voice is expressive he’s not a great voice actor – I’d rather watch him deliver his dialog than this CGI character in the film. David Cross probably comes across the best, because he’s got such a distinctive and interesting voice, and he plays well as the drama-queen fish/support staff. Whereas I didn’t know it was Tina Fey until the end credits – it could have been a Friends cast member, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. Of course she’s never just the victim, but her character functions mostly as a plot device. There’s no “you go” female empowerment, but there’s also no real character. Then again, Dreamworks animation has a tradition of having name talent that don’t enhance or benefit the narrative.
But this fits with the MO of DreamWorks animation in general. When Patton Oswalt said he was acting as a consultant, or Guillermo Del Toro’s gets on board as an executive producer, you figured these guys would up their game. But this is DreamWorks near their worst: high concept, low wattage. And if it feels like I’m beating up on a movie that’s mostly just mediocre, it’s because it has all the elements to be great.