Fast-paced but not frantic, goofily good-natured and attractively designed for widescreen 3D, this splashy new effort from Tom McGrath, who made the Madagascar hits, happily avoids the crassness and relentless showbiz referencing that have marred some past DreamWorks Animation entries. With its nifty concept and high-octane cast, this Paramount release looks to rake in strong returns with general audiences through year's end, and it would be a shock not to see a sequel down the line.
Almost in the manner of an old farce, Megamind is loaded with role reversals, of main characters suddenly switching personalities or being revealed as having been someone else in disguise. "I was born to be a super-villain," the blue-headed, pointy-chinned title character reflects on a life that began on an outlying planet, from where, in a sort of double-Superman move, two toddlers were rocketed to Earth, one fortuitously landing in a mansion, the other ending up behind bars. Little life-highlight snippets reveal that, from childhood to increasingly rivalrous adulthood, the ever-plotting Megamind has always been bested in his nefarious plots by the effortless superiority of Metro Man, a magnanimous, if self-satisfied, caped superhero.
Adored by the one and all and with nothing left to prove, Metro Man (a perfectly preening Brad Pitt) is no sooner honored with the enormous Metro Man Museum than Megamind (Will Ferrell, enthusiastic and well-spoken) manages to turn the tables on him at last. Caught in the middle is TV newscaster Roxanne (vibrant Tina Fey), a sexy babe whose shapely contours and assertive personality strongly recall the female lead voiced by Reese Witherspoon in Monsters vs. Aliens.
Startlingly, Metro Man appears to be history, but when Megamind finally achieves his dream come true -- unbridled power over Metro City -- he doesn't know what to do with it because he no longer has an arch-rival. So via a dose of Metro Man's DNA, he endeavors to create one out of Roxanne's hapless, overweight cameraman Hal (a suitably snide Jonah Hill), who quickly goes over to the dark side to avenge the countless slights he's received throughout his life.
This leaves Megamind no choice: He'll have to become a good guy to fight the massive destruction Hal, in his evil new guise as carrot-topped Titan, has begun to unleash on the metropolis, a battle eventually and unsurprisingly joined by a dormant ally.
Megamind arrives at a time when the whole superhero genre is beginning to feel a bit tapped out, but the fun McGrath and his clever writers Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons take in their dextrous plotting is sufficiently contagious to overcome the familiarity. The effervescent characters and frequent role-changing (even the warden at the prison to which Megamind returns is not immune to identity shifts) guarantee there's never a dull moment, and McGrath takes good care that the action doesn't cross the line from the energetic to the simply exhausting.
Not only this, but the director goes the extra mile with the film's visual aspects, notably -- and perhaps especially -- with the 3D. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the dimensional work here is that, after a certain point, you tend to forget that you're watching a 3D movie, so gracefully are the perspectives integrated into the compositions and movements. Wearing the glasses still darkens the image by at least 25%, but the images burst out nonetheless, and there is particularly adroit use of an invisible car, the outline of which just barely registers when it figures in the action. Overall, the film stands as one of the best arguments in favor of 3D among the many examples that have surfaced over the past couple of years in that it feels like mature, restrained, even natural use of the technique.
The self-appointed exponents of super-status (both good and bad) carry with them mild whiffs of The Incredibles, which is hardly a bad thing. This is perhaps especially true of the newly minted Titan, who suggests a less childish version of the nasty prankster Syndrome in his relish for trip-wiring virtue and goodness. The very way in which the story is weighted -- toward bad guys who have their reasons -- represents a tacit acknowledgment that, in such fare, evil is always more interesting than good. In the matter of tone, the filmmakers apply a light touch that reshuffles familiar archetypes in a way that is respectful but not craven, jokey but not arch.
The soundtrack is a busy one, with the original score by Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer constantly dovetailing with a raft of familiar pop songs smartly used. Special attention has even been taken with the end credits, which are conceptually reminiscent of the brilliant street sign and graffiti creations on West Side Story but also take advantage of the 3D format to dramatic effect.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 5 (Paramount)
Production: DreamWorks Animation
Cast (voices): Will Ferrell, Tiny Fey, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, David Cross, Justin Theroux
Director: Tom McGrath