by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Another entry in a (potentially) long list of titles that aren't quite as bad as their reputations would have you believe. Or vice versa, for movies that fail to live up to the hype.

I'm not the biggest fan of DreamWorks Animation. On average, I find they're too "hip" and self- referential for their own good. Unlike, say, Disney/Pixar, which practically oozes "quality entertainment" each time out (and sometimes even surpasses those expectations), DreamWorks' track record is a bit... splotchy at best. While the folks at Pixar divide most of their attention between pesky things like "theme" and telling an actual "story," the geniuses at DreamWorks worry instead about cramming as many in-jokes and pop- culture references into their movies as possible, to be "of the moment," as it were – too eager to cash in on current trends.

I don't make that Disney comparison lightly. When Mouse House mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg left the studio in 1994 (following a bitter, much-publicized dispute with Disney CEO Michael Eisner), he spearheaded DreamWorks' animation division as a slap in the face to his former employer. Their first animated feature, 1998's subversive,  computer-generated Antz, beat Pixar's own cuddly insect movie, A Bug's Life, to theaters by almost two full months. Then, in December of that same year, DreamWorks released The Prince Of Egypt, an ambitious, traditionally-drawn Biblical epic aping the Broadway-caliber style that made Katzenberg a Disney powerhouse, with big themes and even bigger musical numbers, à la Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King. (Prince Of Egypt remains, to me, DreamWorks' crowning animated achievement, hand- drawn or otherwise.)

By May 2001, DreamWorks had finally made a name for itself with Shrek, that CGI skewering of all things Disney and storybook fantasies. It also set the tone for every one of their animated titles that followed, for A-list celebrity voice casts, for turning conventions on their heads, for nonstop  pop-culture references and pre-established Top 40 ballads dominating the soundtrack. It's a tried- and-true formula that dates these movies horribly, in my opinion; decades from now, who's going to look back on these "jokes" and remember what they're even about? (Pixar's films, again by contrast, feature themes so transcendent they'll never fail to entrance audiences – which is, after all, what all classics do.)

The studio stretched itself thin with a trio of films – Shark Tale (2004), Madagascar (2005), and Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009) – in which the jokes felt either wildly inappropriate, too hip for the room, or both. I bet Shark Tale made for quite the drunken pitch meeting: "It's Finding Nemo meets The Godfather, with a gambling addict for a hero, gangster sharks as villains, and a closeted gay sidekick thrown in for good measure! It's family fun for everyone!" Madagascar's most tasteless gag has Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) showered with uncooked steaks – a wink-wink reference to DreamWorks' own Oscar-winning (and adult) American Beauty, about a 42-year-old suburbanite who lusts after his teenage daughter's best friend.

Shades of pedophilia and statutory
rape! The kids'll love it!

And Monsters Vs. Aliens' endless barrage of shout- outs to other movies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman! Dr. Strangelove! Close Encounters Of The Third Kind!) officially hits rock bottom with an extended sampling of the "Axel F Theme" from Beverly Hills Cop – a stellar example of a meta-joke that quickly and painfully wears out its welcome.

That's not to say DreamWorks has gone without its share of story-driven gems – see Kung Fu Panda or How To Train Your Dragon as recent examples. It's just that, more often than not, they tend to rely too much on their typical format; you see the "DreamWorks Animation" logo above the movie's title, and you know exactly what you're gonna get.

I never took my family to see DreamWorks' latest CGI adventure, Megamind, when it came out in theaters last November. (With a streak like that, it's hard to justify the $30-$40 it would have cost us for tickets and treats.) Just from the previews, I dreaded all those superhero jokes I already saw coming. The name "Will Ferrell" didn't exactly inspire confidence either, his patented scream-and- scream-louder routine being a source of great disdain in our household. (I'm still of the opinion that Ferrell's much funnier playing the straight man – see those Celebrity Jeopardy skits for evidence of that.)

So imagine my surprise when we happened across a Blu-Ray copy of Megamind last weekend, and discovered that it's actually one of DreamWorks' better animated titles. If you've also shied away from it so far, know that the movie still has its share of in-jokes – that much is a given. The story's just a lot better than I gave it credit for, and it actually twists the expected superhero tropes in some refreshingly clever ways.

Yes, it's a take-off of that dusty Superman legend, about an alien baby sent to Earth to Accomplish Great Things. Only... this baby has blue skin and a giant bulbous head. And he's immediately overshadowed by a second child, shipped off from a different planet at the same time, who gets all the super powers and chiseled good looks and earns the public's love and adoration. This super-baby grows up to become Metro Man (Brad Pitt), defender of Metro City, while Megamind (Ferrell) resigns himself as his arch-nemesis and proverbial (sometimes literal) punching bag. And there's the Girl/Damsel In Distress/Potential Love Interest, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), who's got the patented Lois Lane spunk and alliterative namesake.

OK... so we've got the pseudo-Superman set-up – with a bit of Unbreakable tossed in for good measure. We have an established theme ("You don't judge a book by its cover or a person by the outside," one character says. "You judge them by their actions.") We've got the handsome hero versus the ugly villain (though my wife doesn't buy into this interpretation; as a baby, she says, Megamind is cute as a button). The twist is that we see all this from the "bad guy"'s perspective, so that our loyalties are skewed.

Do we really want to see Megamind achieve his goal for world-domination? Well, yes, because Megamind is Us, so to speak - anyone who's ever struggled to find their place in this world, their purpose, their spot in the hierarchy of things. He's a sympathetic protagonist (if only because he's so full of himself), and when (SPOILER) he finally defeats Metro Man during their latest tussle, Megamind is blindsided, because he didn't expect to actually succeed. He has no specific goal after achieving his goal. How's that for subverting expectations?

So that's Act One. Act Two then becomes "Who Will Rise Up Against Evil?" as Megamind suddenly finds himself nemesis-less, adrift in a sea of his own making, a yin without a yang. Aided by his loyal sidekick, Minion (a fish with a mechanical body of a gorilla [don't ask] and the voice of David Cross), plus some helpful prodding from Roxanne Ritchi herself (don't ask), Megamind searches for a replacement hero. And again, he finds salvation in the most unlikely of places – that unofficial DreamWorks axiom of turning convention on its head.

This section of the movie proper is, admittedly, where I felt my attention slipping. They'd peaked my interest early on, and now for a good half hour we're treated to a left-field, paint-by-numbers sequence featuring Megamind (in disguise) and a geeky cameraman named Hal (Jonah Hill), plus some extended will-they-or-won't-they dalliances between Megamind (in a totally different disguise) and plucky reporter Roxanne. The jokes here fall pretty flat - yes, Will, we get you're doing a riff on Marlon Brando in Superman, ha ha - the plot meanders much like its transitional title character, and it takes the movie a long while to find its footing again.

Act Three, thankfully, is all payoff: The deck is neatly stacked, roles are reversed (notice how we switch dichotomies from handsome hero/ugly villain to ugly hero/uglier villain), characters' true natures are finally revealed. (Even Metro Man is shown as kind of a pompous blowhole, calling the citizens of Metro City "random" and "helpless" and literally walking on water at the opening of his own museum. No one, it seems, is better at mocking his own public image than Brad Pitt.)

For Ferrell's part, his initial vocal inflections take some getting used to (he mispronounces "Metro City" as "MetrAHcity" and "Revenge!" as "RevAHnge!"), but his Megamind is still a likable creation, awkward and arrogant and aching for acceptance. And Fey spouts off so many characteristically snarky one-liners ("Would it kill you to wash the bag?"), you wonder what's been improvised and what's been scripted by writers Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons. (The director is Tom McGrath, one of the minds behind Madagascar, proving everyone has a shot at redemption.)

And did I mention the filmmakers' choice of rock and pop songs - AC/DC's "Highway To Hell," Guns 'n' Roses' "Welcome To The Jungle," and even Michael Jackson's "Bad," among them - are used to particularly rousing effect? Chalk up Megamind as a winning surprise: a reasonably entertaining diversion that floats comfortably close to the top of DreamWorks' animated barrel, rather than scraping the very bottom of it.

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