Though enlivened by some moderately clever twists on the superhero-movie template, “Megamind” never shakes off a feeling of been-there-spoofed-that. It’s hard to stay fresh in such over-mined territory, and this latest DreamWorks toon, while not without its moments of wit and emotion, comes off as a derivative wisecracking machine rather than a feat of sustained imagination. For all the references to classic comicbook fare, the film “Megamind” most immediately recalls is “Despicable Me,” and while Paramount’s massive promotion should command family audiences in similar numbers, some may feel disinclined to pony up so soon for yet another misunderstood uber-villain.
With his oversized noggin and shiny cerulean complexion, the evildoer in question looks like a mad scientist crossed with a radioactive Smurf, or perhaps a less lugubrious version of “Watchmen’s” Dr. Manhattan by way of “The Flintstones'” Great Gazoo. And like Steve Carell’s Gru in “Despicable Me,” Will Ferrell’s Megamind is bald and speaks with an unusual accent; commands a small army of mechanized servants; almost never succeeds in pulling off his harebrained schemes; and is so temperamentally benign, so devoid of any hint of real menace, that the film’s exploring-the-dark-side conceit feels toothless from the get-go.
It’s not easy being blue, and in a chucklesome prologue, Megamind explains his extraterrestrial origins, his early years spent honing his wicked ways in a maximum-security prison, and his longtime rivalry with Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt), the white-caped savior beloved by the denizens of Metro City. Star TV reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) is the Lois Lane in this “Superman”-styled universe, covering Metro Man’s heroic feats while fending off the gauche advances of her cameraman, Hal (Jonah Hill).
These early scenes are dominated by a considerable degree of winking, know-it-all humor, granting the fast-talking characters an annoyingly blase attitude about all the comicbook-movie tropes they’re riffing on; one soon begins to wonder if scribes Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons intend to deliver an action-adventure worth its salt or just a smugly ironic pastiche.
Things take a more inspired turn when, in the first of many sizable setpieces, Megamind unexpectedly succeeds in eliminating Metro Man and brings the city to its knees. But just as the Joker needs Batman, so Megamind realizes victory is pointless without an arch-nemesis to keep him on his toes, and he and his resourceful piranha-robot sidekick, Minion (David Cross), conspire to cook up a new superhero.
In a series of thoroughly but not unenjoyably contrived developments, aided by an elegant arsenal of gadgets and some deftly timed slapstick, Megamind finds himself falling for Roxanne, while Hal becomes his singularly unpromising choice of opponent. Soon the film’s moral universe is spinning giddily out of whack; indeed, the sharpest element of “Megamind” is its elastic sense of the genre’s traditional good-vs.-evil binaries — a gambit that would have been even more successful if the film were not conceived along the lines of a kid-friendly mass entertainment, and its titular villain were allowed to be as dastardly as advertised.
But viewer relatability and redemptive character arcs must come first, and Ferrell’s high-pitched vocal delivery makes this fey, eccentric, blue-skinned, green-eyed monster engaging enough, if not exactly cuddly, and gives the unlikely bad-guy-gets-the-girl subplot the requisite emotional heft. Other vocal turns are bright and serviceable, although the dialogue isn’t sharp enough to allow anyone in particular to stand out.
Smarter and less cloying than “Despicable Me” (if not nearly as rich as Pixar’s “The Incredibles”), “Megamind” marks an advance in thematic and technical sophistication for “Madagascar” director Tom McGrath. Yet the film remains beholden to the DreamWorks credo of nonstop jokey humor in service of a desperate bid for pop-culture relevance, stuffed with obvious musical choices (like Michael Jackson’s “Bad”), bizarre throwaway references to other movies (like “The Karate Kid”) and attempts to channel the slang of its presumed target audience (one character threatens to “go all gangster” on another), always playing to the viewer rather than inhabiting a fully imagined story.
As with most CG animation, the use of 3D, while not essential, reps a reliably agreeable enhancement, lending the technically polished production a nice depth and texture, especially in crowd scenes. Apart from a few futuristic flourishes, the city’s architecture feels classically metropolitan, with skyscrapers that allow for the sort of vertiginous, wrecking-ball setpieces that recall the likes of “Spider-Man” and “King Kong.” Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe’s score offers a pleasing corrective to the overamped pop soundtrack.