We all know how infallible Superman is. The Man of Steel can’t be stopped by bullets, has super speed, x-ray and heat vision and, best of all, can fly. Nothing on this earthly planet can harm him, and, as such, he took it upon himself to be our protector; to put himself in harm’s way as nothing can harm him. However, Superman is only as ‘good’ as his nemesis, he needs someone, or something, to battle against – to be a force for good, there must be ‘evil’, otherwise Superman’s job would be even easier. In the comic books, that nemesis is Lex Luthor, a normal human that uses superior intellect as a weapon, since superior physicality is clearly impossible. And in all the years that Superman has been saving the world, the stories have always been told from his viewpoint. Ok, Smallville had the occasional episode dedicated to Lex, but on the whole you tell a story about Superman, you tell it from his point of view. So what would happen if you were to look at Superman’s world from Lex’s position? If ‘evil’ was all you knew and how you acted, then surely ‘good’ would be bad to you, something to vanquish and defeat? Lofty ideas perhaps and not really the subject of this essay, but such is the idea behind tonight’s feature, another in the long line of CG animated feature films from Dreamworks, whose output continues to be somewhat patchy. Hot on the heels of the fantastic How to Train your Dragon comes Megamind, let’s see if it has the strength to fly!
Just so you know, to fully explain the ideas behind this film I have to add a few observations that may be considered spoilers.
The allegory to Superman starts right at the beginning, with the destruction of an alien world and our protagonist (who has not yet assumed the name Megamind) being placed into an escape space-capsule, along with his lifelong friend and helper, Minion, by his loving parents, whose prophetic description of destiny is cut off by the sealing of the door. During the journey he first spies his later nemesis, the soon to be termed Metro Man, in a similar but better equipped spacecraft, that, but for a quirk of fate, happens to land in a plush and expensive mansion with parents that just happen to want a child, while Megamind’s craft, from the same cause, crash-lands in a prison. The voiceover here projects fate and destiny as conspiring against him, as Megamind laments his landing as defining his life. Somewhat grand ideas about nature and nurture in how the young are raised in a kids film was something I was not expecting, that’s for sure. We continue on this theme with the two children in school, Mega Man always playing the ‘hero’, in essence showing off, while Megamind, still in his prison slacks, tries his upmost to gain the same recognition only to have it fail and him be treated with contempt and punished. These are quite clever ideas, and I’m sure are not meant as a damning indictment of schooling that rewards and punishes by a defined set of ‘rules’ and doesn’t promote or reward individuality based on merit. As during these formative years, Megamind isn't ‘evil’, he is just trying to compete for affection – kids crave affection, even if that is time being scolded, it is still affection, however warped – and his inventions, even though they fail, are borne out of this simple idea. So, after one particularly abortive attempt at acceptance he finally makes his mind up that being ‘good’ is not for him, ‘evil’ is his destiny and from that day forward uses his incredible intellect to further himself, for himself; he takes the name Megamind as proof of his identity and as the antithesis of his rival’s Metro Man persona, and spends all his time plotting to bring the good down, that evil may triumph, once and for all.
Fast-forward several years, Megamind is once again behind bars; it seems his and Metro Man’s confrontations are nothing but circular battles which involve Megamind’s dastardly plans being thwarted at the last moment and seeing him gaoled, only to escape and try again. (Isn't that exactly how Superman and Lex Luthor behave?) This latest plan involves using a holographic device to escape from prison, kidnapping sexy roving reporter Roxanne Ritchie and holding her to ransom while trapping Metro Man and harnessing the full rays of the sun to finally destroy him. Whilst the first part, the escape, goes without a hitch, as does the kidnapping, it soon dawns that this has happened many, many times before – Roxanne’s total lack of fear and her ambivalence to any menace provided by Megamind’s implements of torture, and even the banter between Megamind and Metro Man is becoming clichéd – as Metro Man always wins. However, things are going to be very different this time, with copper seemingly being Metro Man’s weakness and the charging of the laser being complete, an enormous explosion signals the death of not only Metro Man, but also the cyclic nature of their battles – no one, least of all Megaman himself, can believe it – evil has finally triumphed! Cue a city in mourning and despair as Megamind marches towards City Hall to put all his evil plans into practice – just what exactly are those plans, asks Roxanne ... only there is no answer forthcoming as this is an unprecedented situation.
It’s an old saying that you should be careful what you wish for, because with all the city at his mercy Megamind simply has nothing to do – his sole purpose, it seems, was to fight good; i.e. to fight Metro Man. He lived for the chase, the battles and the banter. With no Mega Man, there is no Megamind. During one such lamentation, Megamind sets explosives to destroy the mammoth stature in the Metro Man museum. At the same time, Roxanne, also lamenting the heroes passing, and Megamind cross paths, and not want anyone to see his weakness, Megamind disguises himself as Bernard the librarian. This simple meeting sets of a chain of events that will shape Megamind’s future as he begins to have feeling for her. It is during these dates that Megamind realises what we, as an audience, have suspected since the beginning, that he is not all bad, in fact, he’s not bad at all; he is living under a persona created as a defence mechanism during his early childhood. It’s quite a revelation and it’s something that he, and his long term friend and companion, Minion, can’t quite come to terms with. When truths are told and feelings are hurt, these two, who have been against the world (literally) by themselves, form a rift whose emotional core seeks to undermine everything Megamind has come to believe. The trouble is, even though we’ve been with these two since the beginning of the film, there isn't that emotional connection between the audience and the characters – thus what plays out as a hook on which to pin the emotional involvement of the audience falls completely flat – when, in a similar vein, the same thing occurs between Megamind and Roxanne, it too doesn’t resonate and thus we, the audience, don’t feel that hurt or that joy with the reconciliation – this is something that Pixar have down to a tee, it's what makes their films stand out as great. Dreamworks have managed it in the past, but here, it simply does not work; maybe it’s because we don’t spend enough time with the characters, maybe we can’t relate to a giant blue head and a fish that uses a robot gorilla suit to get around, or maybe the Megamind creators don’t have that sparkle that Pixar has – but whatever the cause it is at these points that the film falls, and no amount of comedy and action will rescue it.
It is Roxanne that gives Megamind the idea that the city needs a hero again, and Megamind hits upon the idea to create one from scratch using DNA from Metro Man’s cape and infusing it in a normal human – thus rekindling the battles and the banter he so misses. However, when the power is given unexpectedly to Hal, Roxanne’s camera-man, and who has a crush on her, things once again don’t quite go to plan. Hal, imbued with god like powers wants to use them only for one thing, to woo Roxanne, and when she rejects him he uses his powers for his own personal gain – see the mirror here? He becomes the evil that Megamind wishes he was; a hate fuelled, out for himself monster with nothing but venom and revenge on his mind; this is a very different kind of evil, an emotional evil, and something that Megamind simply does not have in him. And with no-one left to turn to, who will stop this new evil that threatens the city? Well there really is only one person isn't there ....?
The voice talent behind the main cast is Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt and Tina Fey as Megamind, Metro Man and Roxanne respectively. Farrell is well known for his comedic performances and he imbues Megamind with the vulnerability that the character so needs to succeed. Megamind is not born evil, he chooses that path as he sees it as his only option, and later comes to regret how his life has unfolded. As he grows closer to Roxanne his voice becomes warmer but still retains that tinge of pathos that a character out of his depth requires. Pitt, on the other hand, is a typically heroic voice; imagine a puffed up chest and even bigger ego, and really doesn’t require more than that, even when explaining his later actions, it’s actually quite unremarkable. Fey, on the other, other hand demonstrates warmth and sadness in equal measure; her voice ‘fit’s’ the on screen characterisation. Her cocksure attitude upon the first capture we witness, her disbelief with Megaminds triumph, her reluctance with Hal and her affection towards Bernard all come across with clear believability. She and Ferrell share a tangible chemistry that comes across in their voices.
The supporting characters of Minion and Hal are voiced by David Cross and Jonah Hill respectively, both comedic actors and both able to bring their characters alive by a mixture of improvisation and emotion. Cross, particularly, masters that fawning sidekick with perfectly placed pathos and comic timing, and when it comes to the showdown delves deep to bear his heart on his sleeve – he and Ferrell play well off each other and try so hard to bring their relationship as the emotional core of the film. Hill channels that sardonic wannabe from any of the Judd Apatow flicks he has done a million times before, and it fits the hard done by, but ultimately sadistic Hal – and when given the superpowers it becomes every bit as spiteful as a spoilt child. In this guise he is quite unlikeable, which is exactly what the part requires.
The art department and production designers have given the film a very natural look, and it is one without a specific ‘time’ – Metro City (or is that Metrosity?) could be anywhere, it is a sprawling metropolis, but with wide open spaces, it even has individual moving cars and people who inhabit it, something not done before in an animated city-scape. As to the character themselves, well Megamind is a cute blue alien with a big head. In order to appear intimidating he dresses in bigger and bigger costumes, black leather and spikes – fitting that he should adopt heavy metal as his theme music, I liken him to a seventies rock icon, Peter Gabriel or Robert Plant maybe; his entrances are suitably loud with lights and smoke. Metro Man, conversely, with his quiff hair and white suit resembles an in shape Elvis, and when he shows off his musical ‘prowess’ this must be who he is channelling. The rest of the characters have a very ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ vibe to them, not sure if this is entirely intentional but stylistically there is very little difference between Roxanne and Susan.
As to the story, well there is an awful lot going on; at its very basic it is an unsuitable boy meets girls (beauty and the beast) romance, but over and above that you have the complex ideals of nature and nurture, good and evil, retribution and revenge, living your own life, expectation and finally good old fashioned buddy film. Granted a lot of the more complex ideals will go over its intended audiences head – this is, by its nature a kids animated film – and for some of the darker ideas this is probably the best thing. Its biggest problem is its inconsistency as the story narrative doesn’t have the immediacy, nor the emotional involvement, that Pixar can generate; it has lofty ideas but can’t seem to smooth them out into an all encompassing plot, and, as such, does feel a little disjointed. We, perhaps, as already alluded to, don’t get enough time to fully understand the characters and thus when they go through their various journeys we have nothing to grasp onto and journey with them. Most of the comedy works well, as does the action, and in the end it remains an enjoyable romp; but it never manages to attain that point which makes a film great. Pixar still have it and Dreamworks remain on catch up, even with their own back catalogue.