Most decent kids’ entertainment blends material for older and younger viewers. But DreamWorks’ latest CGI movie, Megamind, pushes this dynamic weirdly far, squarely targeting viewers who’ll catch jokes based on the original Donkey Kong, or recognize Marlon Brando from Superman, or Pat Morita from Karate Kid. The tone draws heavily on wryly postmodern, self-aware send-ups like The Venture Bros., and it’s so packed with references familiar to longtime superhero aficionados that smaller viewers may not be sure what they’re seeing, apart from bickering and explosions. There’s nothing wrong with animation aimed at adults, but this may be the first kids’ movie that throws fewer bones to its supposed intended viewers than to their parents.
The film begins with two infants rocketing toward Earth, in an echo of Superman’s origin. From the start, their stories are linked: Radically different childhoods lead Megamind (Will Farrell) to become a villain, and Metro Man (Brad Pitt) to become a hero, but they define each other and give each other purpose. Then Megamind actually wins their lifelong battle, and has to figure out what his life means in a world no longer defined by the ongoing conflict.
The idea is both smarter than it could have been and less ambitious. Director Tom McGrath (who co-helmed both Madagascar movies) and first-time screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons give the material a melancholic depth: The idea that superheroes and villains are locked in codependent relationships has been around for decades but, again, Megamind takes it to unexpected lengths as the aimless, victorious Megamind essentially turns into a grieving widow. It doesn’t go far enough to say anything new about the idea, though; the story’s beats are obvious. There’s a fine line between closely following archetypes and embracing cliché, and Megamind doesn’t always wind up on the right side of that line. Still, it pours on the humor, while finding a comfortable sophistication in Megamind’s relationships with his buddy/servant Minion (David Cross) and crush object Roxanne (Tina Fey), and offering a less cloying take on the “Villains are basically just stylish, daring heroes” dynamic that Despicable Me worked this past summer. Children may not love Megamind, but at least they can bond with mom and dad afterward when they explain who Brando was.