In DreamWorks Animation's Megamind, Will Ferrell's titular character finds being the bad guy isn't all it's cracked up to be. Although the film appears, at first glance, similar to last summer's Despicable Me, it finds its own unique and pleasing take on "rooting for the bad guy."
Rocketed to Earth in a similar fashion to Superman, Megamind finds he's not the only survivor of an advanced, but doomed, alien race. The two extraterrestrial children become life-long adversaries as the other boy is accepted for his gifts and grows up to be Metroman, the city's protector. But after years of conflict, Megamind discovers, quite suddenly, he has defeated Metroman.
Compare that with Despicable Me, in which Dru is a James Bond-style villain in a world without heroes whose principal rival, Vector, is another bad guy. While Megamind appears to depict the standard hero/villain conflict, it moves beyond that to have the main character's primary opposition be his shifting view of himself. Removing the conventional conflict pushes Megamind into more interesting territory by asking, essentially, "What would Lex Luthor do next?"
Answering that question is Ferrell, who provides a complete character in his major voice-work debut. All of his usual quirks in such films as Old School and Anchorman fade as he takes on a less buffoonish, and more sensitive, character. Despite his stated villainy, Megamind is in touch with his feelings and willing to share them with the audience through narration. While Ferrell is compassionate as a narrator, his biggest feat is playing a more human and insecure version of Megamind when he dons a disguise. While the performance is subtly reminiscent of David Hyde Pierce, Ferrell adds warmth to the disguised character. It not only endears Megamind to the audience, but makes him an utterly worthy cartoon hero.
As the movie is more character-based, the rest of the voice cast must be just as strong. With the internal conflicts taking center stage, the film assembled a group up to the task. Brad Pitt, like Ferrell, disappears into the character of Metroman with a more conventional, deeper superhero voice. Despite those obvious ticks, one is hard-pressed to hear any of Pitt's well-known voice in the performance.
Tiny Fey is surprising and funny as Roxanne Ritchi, the movie's spin on Lois Lane. She has all the spunk a female reporter should have in this setting, but also plays the character's reluctance at being the superhero's gal quite well.
David Cross, while not disappearing into his character, offers his signature voice to Minion, Megamind's number one guy and best friend. On paper, he's similar to Bobo the Bear from Muppets from Space -- a warm and concerned underling who takes abuse with gentle good humor. Adding Cross' cynical high-pitch sound to the mix gives Minion more of an edge than he might otherwise have. Jonah Hill rounds out the cast as Roxanne's camera man. While one could say he is a riff on Jimmy Olsen, with his red hair and affinity for cameras, the character is actually insecure and incapable of expressing himself.
Directed by Todd McGrath, Megamind has a great deal of belief in itself: The camera movements, the color palette and even the unobtrusive 3D all support the story remarkably well. Where even animated movies can feel locked off and stilted in the 3D era, the camera here is free to move around, bounce, and run at high speeds. McGrath, who previously directed the Madagascar films, seems to have hit his stride here.
Megamind is oddly mature for a movie targeted at kids. Although it has frantic action with robots, superpowers and mad technology, it also possesses a sophisticated underpinning message about friendship and self-perception. Those elements aren't developed to their fullest extent, but they offer an emotional core that elevates this sort of big-budget animated family film above its "kid-vid" ancestors.
Does Megamind truly win in the end? Despite comparisons to Despicable Me, the film contains enough originality and charm to make those similarities inconsequential. If anything, Megamind proves there is more material to be mined from films that ask the audience to root for the bad guy. It's a quality family movie that offers laughs, emotion, and action in appropriate amounts.
Megamind opens today nationwide.