I wrote in 2006 that, while both were fine films involving magic in the 1800s, The Prestige was superior to The Illusionist. The Ed Norton vehicle used magic to tell a more conventional and crowdpleasing period romance story. While the Chris Nolan puzzler was a more complicated, colder, more aloof picture that was actually about magic. So now we have the second animated fable involving the trials and tribulations of a supervillain. And a similar comparison can be made. Despicable Me is a terrific entertainment, and an emotionally-engaging little cartoon. Megamind is also solid entertainment and while it may not be as heartwarming, it has more beneath-the-surface pleasures than the former. That there can be legitimate debate over which supervillain's arc cartoon is the most terrific is a testament to how good a year it's been for animation.
A token amount of plot: Megamind (a somewhat broad but occasionally low-key Will Ferrell) was sent by his parents in a rocket ship to earth as their planet exploded. But another child's parents had the same idea, and the two rockets collided in space and sent the former astray. Rocket 02 landed in a stable and loving home while the future-Megamind landed in a prison yard and was raised to hate authority and resent those more successful. Constantly in the shadow of the overachieving and superpowered fellow refugee, the blue-headed child is himself blessed with superior intellect. But of course, in the world of popularity, brawn trumps brains, and the two orphans eventually begin an epic never-ending battle in the heart of Metro City. As adults, they constantly square off, with the heroic Metro Man (Brad Pitt) constantly foiling the schemes of Megamind. But during their last battle, something went inexplicably right. Metro Man is now dead, and a victorious Megamind must quickly decide what to do with his life now that his nemesis is no more.
The ideas at the heart of Megamind, the duality of good and evil, nature vs. nurture, and predestination vs. free will, are not new. Hardcore comic fans will even recognize the story for its similarities to the J.M. Dematteis Legends of the Dark Knight arc, Going Sane, where The Joker accidentally killed Batman and found himself without a reason to keep menacing Gotham City. Most of the film deals with 'what happens next?' What makes the picture work (aside from its terrific animation, solid vocals, and epic comic-book smackdowns) is the relatively low-key tone that the film takes for its latter half. After a first third dealing explicatively in comic book cliche (complete with Roxanne Ritchi, star-reporter who is really annoyed at the near-constant kidnappings), Megamind becomes a character study of two embittered men at a crossroads, and a surprisingly touching romance. Ritchi (a winning Tina Fey) does find herself involved in a love triangle of sorts, but it's not the kind you're thinking of. As Megamind accidentally romances his once-favorite hostage (long story, but it involves a disguise) while devising a 'plan B' to his deviousness, he starts to realize that maybe, just maybe, he doesn't want to be a city-destroying villain. The romance works because it's played at a purely human level, two people who meet by accident and find that they are intellectual equals and like to talk to each other.
The rest of the film, which I will only hint at, concerns Megamind's intended schemes in the wake of Metro Man's death. If Megamind is to remain the evil blight on the city, than who will take the role of protector? And conversely, if Megamind decides that he doesn't like terrorizing the city, will their simply be a lack of good and evil, or is the existence of great evil an inevitable byproduct of our civilization? All of this is packed into a bright and colorful action comedy, but there is plenty to chew on while you're watching an animated Tina Fey charm an animated blue-headed Will Ferrell. Like all of the best Dreamworks animated films (Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon), there are next-to-no pop culture references (just a few pop songs on the soundtrack and an extended riff on Marlon Brando's performance in Superman) and everyone plays the story as if it were Shakespeare. In a more broadly comic fashion, the journey of Megamind is similar to that of The Iron Giant. Every major character eventually has to make a choice, to be who they are destined to be, or become whomever they want to be.
As mentioned above, the animation is up to the usual Dreamworks standards, all rendered in glorious 2D. Brad Pitt scores laughs in a glorified cameo, while Tina Fey brings spark and gravitas to what could have just been a knowing riff on the damsel in distress. Ferrell has ironically the hardest role, as he has to play a character who often acts like the Will Ferrell clown persona, yet still remain credible when the clown appears to be crying on the inside. The action scenes, most of which are in the last act, are every bit as 'real' as the fight scenes in Kung Fu Panda. The moments of Metro Man flying to the rescue are glorious and only serve to remind us how far live-action special effects still have to go when it comes to making a man fly onscreen. The film is less overtly emotional than How to Train Your Dragon, but there is a deeper and more thoughtful narrative at play than the marketing materials would indicate.
Boiled down to its basest elements, Despicable Me is a fine film that makes you feel, while Megamind is a fine film that makes you think. Megamind once again shows Dreamworks in absolute command of the animation medium. Short of 2007, when Disney released both Meet the Robinsons and Ratatouille, I cannot remember a single year when a studio released two cartoons this good. Heck, I'd argue in this current filmmaking climate, big-studio animation is the most consistently high-quality genre around. We'll save the comparisons for the end of the year. For now, let's just state that Megamind is another terrific cartoon in a two-year streak of terrific cartoons.