Review: Megamind, 2010, dir. Tom McGrath

Dreamworks’ 2010 resembles something of a roller coaster, climbing to the peak of ascension in March with the outstanding How to Train Your Dragon before racing back down the rails with May’s Shrek Forever After. This November, the studio has risen back up to the middle with their original (if one can call it that with a straight face) superhero/villain flick, Megamind, which neither plummets to the depths of Shrek nor reaches the heights of Dragon. Megamind, in other words, is where Dreamworks gets off the ride.

Megamind follows its eponymous character (voiced by Will Ferrell), a blue-skinned alien from an extinct planet sent to Earth to carry out his destiny. He’s the direct rival of Metro Man (puzzlingly, Brad Pitt), the Kal-El of this Superman riff– a handsome, charismatic, goodie-two-shoes type with unimaginable powers (he can fly, he’s super strong, he’s invincible, and he can melt things with his X-ray vision, among other nifty gifts such as guaranteed perfect hair forever). The film chronicles their conflict across the course of their lives before cutting to the present, where Megamind has escaped prison in Metro City to challenge Metro Man using an appropriately elaborate and ridiculous plan to best his foe.

Except that unlike most Superman stories, that plan actually works and Metro Man is reduced to a skeleton in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

Megamind‘s central conceit is pretty exciting but the film just doesn’t have the nerve or even the interest to fully explore what happens when a villain loses his hero and really delve into the superhero/villain dynamic at the film’s core. Certainly the film’s initial view of the hero-villain relationship is combative but we learn quickly (probably too quickly) that it’s actually symbiotic: without Megamind, Metro Man would have no one to defend the city from. Without Metro Man, Megamind controls the city and thus has no incentive to be a villain anymore– what’s the point in plotting to rob banks and deface art galleries when there’s no one to stand in your way? So, ostensibly, Megamind is a movie about purpose and what happens when these archetypal figures, locked in a classic struggle of good versus evil, lose each other (answer: they fall into self-reflective malaise and fall in love with a plucky and sexy young reporter).

If all of that sounds really high-minded, fret not– Megamind is anything but. This isn’t a film that’s heavily vested in the pursuit of fleshing out its themes and instead prefers to drop a pop culture reference (though admittedly the most obvious one is at least relevant to the subject matter) or make its characters dance like idiots to AC/DC or Michael Jackson songs. Dreamworks slips into some truly bad habits which it successfully avoided in How to Train Your Dragon, and those little bits of obnoxiousness go a long way toward disrupting the story and disengaging us from the experience. Maybe Dragon was a fluke, and maybe no one should be surprised to see Megamind engage in the same kind of flaccid pop culture baiting that the studio is known for, but Megamind has so much going for it in theory that seeing the characters all dance to “Bad” disappoints more than one might expect.

Which is to say that the film isn’t all for naught, a missed opportunity more than an outright catastrophe, but what it misses hurts it immensely. Megamind possesses a genuine emotional heart here that director Tom McGrath appears to be willfully ignoring. Apart from superhero/villain relations, there’s a throughline about how losing gives us the opportunity to learn from our mistakes that could have been immensely satisfying from a character and a narrative standpoint if the film didn’t treat it like an afterthought. Perhaps that’s Megamind‘s weakness– it’s a movie that’s unable to process itself, rushing through scenes (notably, Megamind’s crime spree in the wake of Metro Man’s demise, which should have taken up much more screen time and been much, much more fun) to get to the inevitable climax where our villain realizes that he, too, can be a hero and everyone learns a valuable lesson through incredibly cheap and lazy means. There’s a catharsis here, but frustratingly it’s reached through totally sloppy and inorganic means, as though McGrath couldn’t be bothered to take the time to build up to Megamind’s climactic epiphany and instead takes a haphazard path to said conclusion that, while not irredeemable, yields a movie that’s much less effective than it should have been.

What does work for Megamind works well. McGrath at least has the common sense to recognize the talents of his cast, and he’s smart enough to allow Ferrell, Fey, and Cross to play off of one another at consistent intervals throughout the picture. Each performer seems to be enjoying themselves well enough here, particularly Ferrell– but maybe that’s because he’s perfect as the pompous twit rather than as the destructive man child he’s come to be known for playing. Ferrell plays Megamind with a self-obsessive air that veils the character’s innocence and inherent gentleness, if thinly; there’s never a doubt that Megamind is on the path toward herodom, and therefore there’s little need to really hide that (though I’d identify that as another failing of the script), but Ferrell gives the character volume nonetheless and yields a well-rounded performance. Fey isn’t given a ton to do here– she alternates between being the straight woman and the damsel in distress– but Roxie Richter has verve to spare thanks to her efforts, and it’s easy to see why she’s the target of the affections of both Megamind and Hal, Jonah Hill’s creepy and pathetic news team cameraman and eventual…well, I think saying anything more is actually spoilerish. Finally, Megamind without a doubt needed more of David Cross’s Minion, a piranha-like fish who lives to serve our hero (villain?) and resides in a small water globe fastened atop a gorilla-like cyborg body. Minion’s a fun character, obviously eager to carry out his master’s orders but sadly lacking the capacity to do so effectively, and Cross has a good time giving the character life and does a great job interacting with Ferrell. There’s impressive chemistry between them considering the film’s format, and the movie takes a major misstep in separating them for a reasonable chunk of the plot to generate some disingenuous drama.

(One final casting note: Brad Pitt? Brad Pitt’s a phenomenal actor, one of the strongest working today, but the man isn’t made for voice-acting. Metro Man comes off as incredibly bland, something that an otherworldly and impossibly perfect demigod should never sound like. I’m not sure if Pitt just sleep-walked through the sound booth for a paycheck or if being physically anonymous confounded him but he brings very, very little to his role.)

Megamind soars with some pretty great action sequences toward the end, and the 3D format compliments the scope of the film’s battles nicely (though anyone with serious vertigo may want to think twice), but apart from that and some nice voice-acting the movie is ultimately a piece of forgettable animated fluff. It’s hard to get up in arms over it (other than Dreamworks’ tendency to be, well, Dreamworks), but it’s also not making any top ten lists in 2010 and it’ll probably be long forgotten in a couple of years. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of admirable ambition present in Megamind, just not the drive to see that ambition fully realized.

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