Once in a blue moon in our ever-swirling galaxy, there comes a time when good and evil don’t turn out the way we expect them to. Like for instance in our story. Here, the undisputed villain of Metro City decides that for the good of bad, the bad guy must create someone good, a new hero. But once that’s done, the new good guy turns bad, leaving the original bad guy with no choice but to become good and do good, so that in the end, the new good guy must square off with the new bad guy and . . . . We really aren’t sure where all this is all leading to — except that “Megamind” is going to give us nearly two hours of a giddy ride through the highs and lows of the battle between good and evil.
Constant creation and change is the premise of DreamWorks’s new animated feature, a fine comedy of errors written with inventive wit by Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, featuring the distinct voices of Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt, and kept on an even keel and at a perfect pitch by director Tom McGrath.
It begins with the pending implosion of some planet, where the parents of an adorable baby with a humongous blue head decide to catapult him into space, direction Planet Earth. Another set of parents, unseen, does the same to a cuter baby. Baby Blue’s space pod hurtles toward a rich man’s mansion while the capsule carrying “Little Goody Two-Shoes” heads for a grim prison for felons. But as farce would have it, the pods collide and bounce off each other so that their childhood homes and destinies are switched.
Switched but forever intertwined. Eventually, they become classmates at a school for gifted children, where our blue boy discovers his genius for making weapons of destruction, while Goody becomes Boy Charming, blessed with the power to float and fly and captivate a crowd. Even in school, they’re already rivals but blue boy stands no chance of shining because the ever-sly Goody always steals the credit. Finally he vows to devote his genius to Evil, dubbing himself Megamind (Ferrell), later the terror of Metro City. Goody meanwhile becomes city defender Metroman (Pitt).
With co-genius Minion (David Cross) by his side, Megamind’s bid for power appears unstoppable, to the point where he easily abducts a babe, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), sassy TV news anchorwoman who fawns over Metroman and his exploits (“His heart is an ocean inside a bigger ocean”). Something goes very wrong with Metroman’s attempt to free Miss Ritchi, and Megamind is able to get rid of his rival forever, ending up as Metro City’s Evil Overlord. But success comes at a price of boredom, leaving Megamind deploring his fate as a yin without a yang, a matador without a bull. So he creates a new nemesis out of the DNA extracted from the dandruff of Metroman. His choice is odd: Roxanne’s geeky cameraman Hall (Jonah Hill), a Faustian character whom he names not Titan, but Tighten.
The plot’s basics unfold not quite smoothly and in haste, but once they’re laid out, “Megamind” becomes special: a digitally driven, wacky but charming farce. As soon as the scholarly librarian of Metroman Museum, Bernard (Ben Stiller) enters the picture, the movie rises to another level of sophistication, mixing heroic antics with romance, evil-doing with lessons in life, and fine CG imagery with broad comedy.
Impostors and stolen identities
Young and sympathetic Bernard is just one of several people whose identities Megamind steals, usually to escape from a tight spot. In Bernard’s case, he takes on the guy’s good qualities but in the process, the evil impostor discovers his own virtues. Megamind also conjures wild characters. In order to convince a reluctant Tighten to take on the cape of a new hero, he impersonates “Space Dad.” He is supposedly a nod to Marlon Brando’s role as Jor-El, Superman’s dad in the 1978 sequel, but he looks like a visual joke on Bill Clinton, an ex-president sporting an oversized, platinum blond pompadour.
The idea that Megamind can slip in and out of the other characters had provided Schoolcraft and Simons many chances to script comic moments where mixed identities create confusion and irony. These digital morphings, fluid and nicely paced, propel the story, which is basically a farce of mistaken identities.
Ferrell’s highly mimetic voice box goes into full gear here. As narrator and the antihero, he betrays Megamind’s delusions, fears and false sense of grandeur, bringing out the oft-thwarted genius’s conflicted character, namely a perpetual adolescent who suddenly finds himself the evil king of the world but now wants to do things right. Ferrell also emotes the bald super-villain’s puppy love longings. Megamind — read Ferrell — revels in wordplay and puns. He relishes putting the accent on the wrong syllable, usually the second, such as Metro City (which comes out rhyming with atrocity) and me-LAN-choly. He virtually owns the patent for his pronunciation of spider, es-pi-eye-der. There are traces of improvisation, as when he says shool for school, apparently an in-joke on co-screenplay writer Schoolcraft, a name of Germanic or Dutch origin.
Brad Pitt as the preening, swaggering Metroman is a Brad we’ve never heard before. His voice, apparently digitally enhanced whenever the man in tights does charming — an octave lower and with a subtle boom or reverb –- delivers the hero every Angelina could die for and every bit the yang to Megamind’s yin, Mr. Self-Possessed over Mr. Self-Doubt.
Stiller brings to Bernard a lackadaisical, Robert Downey Jr.-like quality that explains why Roxanne puts her trust in him completely. Cross’s squawky voice for Hall/Tighten is as pedestrian as an ordinary citizen’s voice on radio. And Fey is plain sexy, soothing and scintillating as Roxanne.
Wisely, the computer fireworks in “Megamind” rarely go into overdrive or call attention to themselves. A brigade of little minions is a mere visual accent, and the movie’s most impressive gizmo is the multi-purpose and rather old-fashioned Diffusion Ray gun. And Metro City’s look is not a product of pure imagination. Its minimalist, neoclassic architecture is a composite of Los Angeles and Chicago, with something of San Francisco and Philadelphia probably thrown in. But with the city’s tallest skyscraper, the movie references a landmark that is still under construction, the New York City Freedom Tower.
As in many a movie this year from “Eat Pray Love,” to “The Other Guys,” this film has a designated scene stealer, namely the loyal and wise drama queen, Minion. He is a cross between Angela Jolie, the fish in “Shark Tale” (2004), and a piranha with bat wings who lives in a glass fishbowl that is the head of a furry robot. Minion is in fact an homage of sorts to Ro-Man, the gorilla robot monster of the so-bad-it’s-good, sci-fi un-classic of the early 1950s, “Robot Monster.”
Steadily and especially toward the end, “Megamind” ascends to a plane of moral posturing that is something we really shouldn’t mind because it earns every lesson it preaches. You are the fool that you’ve chosen to be. Lies get discovered sooner or later. Love changes all. Don’t let go of a good idea or ideal. Remember, bad guys always end up the loser. And for the Roxannes out there, you really don’t need to marry a Brad Pitt. A guy with an oversized head and a pointy chin will do as well, in fact even better, particularly if he has awesome powers, a big heart and assets as rich as Metro City’s Treasury.
2D version recommended
“Megamind” should be seen in its 2D (regular) version, not 3D. DreamWorks has not done itself and its movie a special favor by releasing an inferior version, where the viewing glasses are an unnecessary distraction, add just a little and subtract a lot. The colors are more vibrant in the regular version, the greens and oranges specially. I wouldn’t have known that the white roses that Megamind offers at the Metroman Museum have a creamy pink tint, had I not also seen the 2D version. The ambiance of Metro City is more cheery –- not the Gotham City of the 3D — and the sweep of its architectural lines is more impressive. The action sequences are also more exciting and, somehow, the emotions are more immediate. Thankfully, we can experience the pure awesome of “Megamind” at a cheaper price.
For the younger ‘uns, there’s hardly any violence here, unless you consider comic-book heroes being blown to bits by a ray gun violent. The story could prove too complex, so a brief summary might be of help. But as a mother of two from the South recently told me, “You misunderestimate today’s kids too much.”