After a seemingly endless parade of animated films about creatures that otherwise would be inanimate, it's actually kind of a relief to see that filmmakers are using the medium to tell stories about anthropomorphized creatures that happen to be anthropomorphic to begin with.
'Megamind' is based on an original idea rather than an existing comic book or graphic novel, but it nevertheless explores the physics, logic and imagery of that universe with equal creativity and energy. Beautifully rendered and well-acted by the likes of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Brad Pitt, DreamWorks' latest is one of the year's better animated films, and it offers a surprisingly engrossing nature-versus-nurture question about those mythic origin stories: are heroes born, or are they made?
Ferrell plays Megamind, a blue, big-headed extraterrestrial who is knocked off course en route to Earth by a competing alien fugitive, Metro Man (Pitt), and literally lands himself in prison – from infancy. Growing up not only under the watchful eye of authority-mistrusting convicts, but in the shadow of Metro Man, Megamind grows up to be the hero's nemesis, hatching one failed plan after another to put his adversary out of commission by kidnapping a plucky local reporter (Fey) and using her as bait. But after one of his attempts to knock off Metro Man is unexpectedly successful, Megamind discovers that he isn't really sure what to do without someone to battle on a regular basis, and begins to re-evaluate his place in society as its designated bad guy.
After playing well-meaning blowhards like Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell feels like a natural fit for the arrogant, misguided Megamind, and he does a terrific job not only capturing a supervillain's prototypical penchant for melodrama, but offering an underlying vulnerability that makes him not only funny, but sympathetic to the audience. There's a genuinely valuable lesson to be learned in his achievement of a goal whose rewards aren't quite what he thinks he wants, but beyond the film's instructional value, Ferrell finds the right amount of sensitivity to inject into Megamind to make him suitably relatable, while preserving an authentic degree of evil inventiveness and comic megalomania.
Meanwhile, as Roxanne Ritchi, Fey not only offers a perfect Lois Lane for the Lex Luthor-esque Megamind and Superman-esque Metro Man to battle over, but gives female viewers a character with enough substance, depth, intelligence and independence to hold her own against her male counterparts. (And even though Fey described Roxanne's look as "a young Sharon Osborne," it's meant as a sincere compliment to say that she's probably never looked better on screen.) At the same time, Pitt is also perfectly cast as the polished protector whose indulgence in the public's hero worship seems at least as dangerous as Megamind's malevolent schemes, and he effectively downplays the earnest heroics of comic book counterparts like Superman in lieu of something more smug and self-satisfied.
Tom McGrath, who previously directed 'Madagascar,' thankfully tones down the pop-culture immediacy of his previous efforts while building the stories' exploration of identity into something more substantial, and mostly finds a comfortable balance between frivolous fun and overwrought self-improvement exercises. In other words, this was a film in which I didn't mind being taught a lesson, because its touch was suitably light, and quite frankly, if I wanted to ignore those third-act epiphanies, there was certainly enough else going on to pay attention to instead.
But as a send-up, satire and celebration of superhero conventions all in one, 'Megamind' works better than most genre deconstructions, because it reminds us that we really make up the myths that we love, and if we can change them to suit what we do or don't want them to be, we can change ourselves too. And to tell audiences that a villain can actually be a hero, and that a hero can be just an ordinary man, is something surprisingly sophisticated, which is why to do so in an animated film is not only compelling, but a considerable achievement.