Evil genius: Takes the cliche of the good guy/bad guy battle and adds some star power to poke fun at it
Whenever you see behind-the-scenes footage of actors recording their voice work for animated movies, they look like they just woke up. For the most part, they don’t sound rumpled or hung over. Once the filmmakers finish applying dialogue to what the animators have done, you wonder why some live actors can’t be as uninhibited in the flesh. I thought that about Brad Pitt while I watched a flamboyantly noble superhero named Metro Man speak in Pitt’s voice for “Megamind,’’ a deliriously handsome Dreamworks comedy that opens today. Pitt’s voice has rarely sounded as if he’s enjoying himself this much.
Metro Man is charmingly cocky. He has a full head of inky hair with a delightful tab of gray for each sideburn. The gloves of his costume are trimmed with fringe. You could open beer bottles with his chin and rake tiny leaves with his faint crows feet. The metropolis he protects — Metro City — has just built for him what amounts to a shrine. And the attention only seems to make his weightless physique even puffier. This is a joke on the kind of star Pitt never was, and I guess that’s part of the liberty he feels in lending his voice to the gag. He sounds happy because he turned out to be someone else.
The bliss of “Megamind’’ is the way it pursues solutions for tired problems. Take that title. It’s not “Metro Man.’’ Megamind is Metro Man’s increasingly pitiful archenemy, and you have to hand it to a movie with the good sense to know that the bad guy is more interesting. Excusing Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, it’s always true yet never acknowledged. The movie called “Megamind’’ turns out to be all about Megamind.
He’s prone to mispronunciation (he puts the stress on the wrong syllables; “Metro City,’’ for instance, rhymes with “atrocity’’). Megamind is thin and blue, where Metro Man is thick and white. He has the sort of giant head only Cadbury could love (crack it open and fondant might ooze out). The voice belongs to Will Ferrell, who, like Pitt, sees the role as an opportunity to have a new kind of fun. Ferrell softens and slightly anglicizes Megamind, the way a Peter Sellers impersonator might. Like Sellers (or Mike Myers), Ferrell winds up playing a pair of other characters, too. One of them confirms how Marlon Brando’s baby with Conan O’Brien would look: like Paul Lynde in Parliament.
Ferrell’s freshness belies the movie’s primary challenge: How do you make a big entertainment about monotony and dissatisfaction? Everything about Metro City is generic. Megamind calls his base of operations “evil lair.’’ His sidekick — a talking fish in a bowl atop a large mechanical primate body — is Minion (David Cross at his very best). The movie knows what its clichés are and uses mockery to avoid most of them. Megamind escapes from prison, resumes terrorizing Metro City, kidnaps Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), the city’s Lois Lane, and possibly eliminates Metro Man. Fey has a good time with a role that, for once, allows her to be as consistently self-confident as she should be elsewhere. Roxanne is an anti-distress damsel. She rolls her eyes at Megamind’s bag of terror tricks and asks him to please stamp her frequent hostage card.
She, the filmmakers, and maybe even a few of the kids in the audience have seen it all before — the comic book, the film based on the comic book, the winking that certain movies based on comic books start to do after a few sequels. Directed by the animator Tom McGrath, “Megamind’’ is well-versed in superhero routine without turning blasé. The boredom of formulas and roles and expectations is very much its point.
With Metro Man out of the picture, ennui creeps over Megamind, who like every male here, has a thing for Roxanne. What will he do to occupy his genius? His evil is like part of a chemical reaction. Supervillainy works only in the presence of superheroism. Our resident baddie might not recall the terminology from college, but he misses his dialectic counterpoint. That lightbulb of a head doesn’t work without a socket. So, in a “Frankenstein’’ plot, Megamind concocts a foil — he turns Roxanne’s nerdy cameraman (Jonah Hill) into a WWE wrestler — hoping to stoke his sense of enmity before it becomes vestigial. Also, à la “Frankenstein’’: His scheme produces romantic disaster.
All the wit in Brent Simons and Alan J. Schoolcraft’s script is matched by the sort of painstaking visual ingenuity that makes most live-action production seem lazy with cynicism. One allusion to Donkey Kong suggests a universe of heritage gaming references that animated movies have yet to make. Two characters fence using street lamps. And Megamind’s vast army of floating mini-minion orbs look like sci-fi shad roe but turn out to be a battalion of peevish LEDs that constitute museum-quality airborne stagecraft. The movie is about the problem of having seen it all before, yes. But it doesn’t treat us as though we have.