DreamWorks Animation’s quest to chase down Pixar calls to mind gadget makers’ pursuit of Apple. No matter how much gloss the wannabes slather on, Steve Jobs’ old movie studio and Jobs’ gizmo manufacturer outshine them with a snazzier look and feel, and better storytelling. While DreamWorks’ latest, Megamind, claims to redefine the superhero movie, in reality it’s the Zune of motion pictures: a spiffy, well-designed product that’s also unmistakably an off-brand imitation. It’s no great shame to suffer by comparison to The Incredibles—most movies, animated or otherwise, don’t measure up. Still, DreamWorks should’ve been smarter than to tug on Mr. Incredible’s cape. (OK, Mr. Incredible didn’t have a cape. But you get my point.) The inevitable outcome: Megamind is an expertly made animated feature that serves to highlight everything Pixar does well.
More happily for Jeffrey Katzenberg and Co., Megamind’s title character (voiced by Will Ferrell) should prove endearing enough to move some merchandise. In the movie’s prologue, we see Megamind’s parents ship their blue, bulbous-headed alien newborn to Earth. Thus commences a lifelong struggle to shake his fresh-off-the-spaceship ways. The clueless extraterrestrial has recurring problems with pronunciation, such as calling his hometown met-RAW-city rather than Metro City. When he tries to impress his schoolmates by designing a popcorn-making contraption, he ignites a towering maize inferno.
Realizing he’s unfit for heroism, Megamind decides to embrace his darker side. His recurrent foil is Metro City’s resident demigod, Metro Man (Brad Pitt), an unearthly being who fell from the sky into slightly better circumstances. (Megamind dropped into a prison; Metro Man landed inside a mansion.) A cocky fellow who juggles babies for sport and responds to adulation by shouting, “I love you, random citizen,” Metro Man flicks away his ill-tempered counterpart with characteristic ease. And then, shockingly, one of Megamind’s evil plans works. (Metro Man’s secret weakness: copper.) But with his lifelong nemesis out of the picture, lording it over Metro City doesn’t have the same appeal. “Without him, what’s the point?” Megamind laments.
Megamind’s shifting mental state comes across thanks to Ferrell’s voice work, which oscillates from sing-songy scheme-hatching to a self-pitying whimper. I also found my eyes drawn to the hints of purple in Megamind’s cheeks and ears as he longs for newscaster Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). It’s a small, skillful touch that reinforces the blue creature’s, er, humanity—the fact that we’re looking at a living thing with blood running underneath his blueberry skin.
The movie’s high point isn’t proper cheek coloration—Megamind looks great in pretty much every frame. Director Tom McGrath, who previously helmed Madagascar, treats 3-D as a tool for immersion rather than a tool to separate moviegoers from a few extra bucks. Megamind’s set pieces have been well-calibrated to take advantage of the medium’s capacity for layering and depth effects without resorting to gimmickry. When Megamind’s airborne “brain bots” seem to circle the theater, it’s motivated by the plot, not a desire for cheap, in-your-face thrills.
That flying robot army shows why it makes sense to craft a movie around an evil genius from another planet: It gives the writers license to dream up pretty much anything they want. (Conan O’Brien recently made this observation vis-à-vis The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns: “He’s a comedy writer’s fantasy … whatever we thought of, we could make happen.”) Megamind’s only friend, for instance, is a fishlike creature named Minion (a perfectly sycophantic David Cross) who trundles around in a humanoid bodysuit that’s lined at the joints with plush mammalian fur. Bizarre, yet strangely plausible—who else would an alien with a head like an inverted Erlenmeyer flask hang out with?
It’s Megamind’s hints of originality—the protagonist applies black eyeliner and buffs his head before going into battle; a press conference is dotted with passers-by filming the action on cell-phone cameras—that ultimately make it a minor disappointment. Megamind could wield a bajillion different weapons. Why, then, does he have to ride a vehicle that’s so reminiscent of the Mr. Incredible-attacking Omnidroid? Jonah Hill’s lovelorn Titan also feels painfully similar to The Incredibles’ Syndrome, the wannabe superhero voiced by Jason Lee. There are also borrowings from non-animated fare: When Megamind goes on an art museum-defacing rampage, it feels less like homage to Jack Nicholson’s Joker than the pillaging of a rightly famous scene.
Given the medium and the subject matter, though, the contrast to Pixar is what stands out. Compared with The Incredibles and Up and Ratatouille and Finding Nemo, Megamind feels … cartoonish. That’s somewhat by design. More than Pixar’s films, the DreamWorks oeuvre traffics in slapstick and one-liners. Some of the yuks work—Fey’s TV reporter, opining upon Megamind’s takeover: “Are you ready to be a slave army? What you need to know”—and some of them don’t, with Hill’s wisecracking cameraman-turned-muscleman a particular weak spot. Mostly, the jokes and the recurrent attempts to tweak the superhero genre serve as a reminder that somebody else has already done it better. Sure, Megamind is pretty good. But why settle for less when you the best is already available on DVD?