Toward the end of DreamWorks' enjoyable, disposable new animated feature, the "evil" genius Megamind faces down his latest preternatural adversary. "Oh, you're a villain all right," he sneers, "just not a supervillain." His rival asks, "What's the difference?", and instantly the sky over Metro City explodes into a giant pyrotechnical image of Megamind, who emerges from its center to shout, triumphantly, "Presentation!"
Showmanship is everything for the DreamWorks gang. The formula established with the first Shrek movie nine years ago, and deeply indebted to the spirit of Mad comics in their early prime relies on robust humor, a glut of pop-cultural references (from movies, songs, graphic art) and a color palette that ranges from bright to garish and jumps out at you in 3-D. The most important element in this knockabout vaudeville is the standard DreamWorks hero: someone who's less a character than its parody; an actor who knows he's playing a role and is not at all comfortable doing it. To wit: Shrek, who's not really very ogrey, and the ultra-domesticated wild animals in Madagascar, and Jerry Seinfeld's bee in Bee Movie, and the monsters in Monsters vs. Aliens and now the title villain make that supervillain of Megamind. Consigned to the roles society thrust them into, they spend the movie struggling to escape their stereotypes and, if the ploy works, find a home in the viewer's heart. Meanwhile, they're troupers, darn it, and if the show must go on, they'll give a snazzy one. That's presentation.
Pack rats by training and temperament, the DreamWorkers here, director Tom McGrath (who helmed the Madagascar movies) and writers Brent Simons and Alan J. Schoolcraft also borrow from and burrow into earlier animated features. Megamind's touchstone is The Incredibles, the 2004 Pixar movie about a superhero who must confront a midlife without incident when he is forcibly retired by the burghers of the city he frequently saved and occasionally upended. Over in Metro City, Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) is a Designated Hater whose opposite number in the town's war games is a kind of Mr. Incredible, but with less collateral damage: the standard-issue, stalwart, Leno-jawed Metro Man (Brad Pitt). Following the natural law of comic-book fantasies, Metro Man always wins these jousts ... until he doesn't. In a battle during the dedication ceremony of the Metro Man Museum, Megamind apparently kills the superhero. Game, apparently, over.
Now Mr. Mean's in charge, and for a while he enjoys his reign of terror, including scheming to blow up the Museum, or, as he euphemizes the operation, "We're going to remove the walls and ceilings." Actually, most of his ill deeds involve art parody from the Dadaist (painting a mustache on the original of the Mona Lisa) to the Obamaist (redoing the Shepherd Fairey poster so it shows Megamind with the caption "No, You Can't!"). But without Metro Man around to whup his blue butt, he faces an existential dilemma: "What's the point of being Bad when there's no Good to stop you?" So he uses his magic powers to transform a fat, unlovable schlub (voiced by Jonah Hill) into a superhero named Tighten. Things don't work out quite as planned, which compels Mastermind to switch roles. Ever the DreamWorks thespian, he wails, "Maybe I don't want to be a bad guy any more."
It's the old nature-nurture question. As an infant, you see, Megamind had been launched into space by his parents on a distant, dying planet. At that exact moment, another astral baby, the soon to be Metro Man, rocketed through the galaxies from another planet. Both tiny spaceships hit Earth at the same time and, coincidentally enough, in the same town; but Metro's ended up at the doorstep of a wealthy, caring couple, while Mega crash-landed at the Prison for the Criminally Gifted and thus had serial killers as his foster parents. In pre-school, while the human-looking Metro Kid wowed his classmates with do-gooder stunts, Megaboy had to endure taunts about his looks (gigantic light-bulb head) and color (cerulean blue). Rather than play second banana to Metro's budding superhero, Mega assumed the showier role of supervillain even though he was a meanie not by temperament but by job description. The part had stature, what with the citizens screaming whenever he showed up, but something within him chafed at the type-casting.
Several recent movies, whether animation or live-action, have examined the theme of role-playing in the comix world. Despicable Me had its own conflicted villain (voiced by Steve Carell), and a bunch of chattering yellow-marshmallow creatures collectively named Minion, which is what Megamind's sarcastic piranha sidekick (voiced by David Cross) is called. Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe also took pains to show the home life of self-appointed superheroes. But Megamind's antecedents go much further back: to the 1978 Superman and the 1987 Cyrano de Bergerac update, Roxanne. The Christopher Reeve epic sends an extraordinary alien (this time, two of them) to Earth; the Steve Martin comedy sets up a one-sided romance between a brilliant guy who looks funny and a young woman who finds him physically and morally repellent. Megamind's reluctant inamorata is Metro City's ace TV journalista, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). To woo her he must speak through actually, take the shape of Bernard, a nerd from the Metro Man Museum.
The movie's requisite golden oldies are from the same period spanned by Superman and Roxanne: AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train," George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone," Guns N' Roses's "Welcome to the Jungle" and, inevitably, Michael Jackson's "Bad." It's the soundtrack of your life, if you were a kid in the Carter-Reagan years and never grew up or matured in your musical taste. But those songs are for the parents; DreamWorks has plenty of toys for tweens, including lots of 3-D gags (popcorn propelled into the audience, a city fountain that seems to spray you), comic malapropisms (Megamind pronounces Metro City to rhyme with atrocity). At Megamind's Manhattan premiere Wednesday night, the guests were offered free cotton candy an apt nutritional equivalent for this movie's tasty, evanescent pleasures.
In ingenuity and charm, this DreamWorks offering isn't up there with Kung Fu Panda, which remains the sharpest, fullest film from the studio. You may get the feeling that Megamind was made for, and possibly by, really smart six-year-olds. Nothing wrong with that; audiences of all ages can be tickled by the higher form of preadolescent humor. It taps an honorable tradition that extends back to the Hollywood geniuses who inspired all these DreamWorks films in the first place: the Warner Bros. creators of Daffy Duck, Sylvester J. Pussycat, Wile E. Coyote and other characters who wrestled perennially against their roles as losers with no respect.
So let the Pixarians win acclaim and Oscars with their grand animated features; at DreamWorks, proudly, they present cartoons.