What happens when a supervillain loses his superhero? The peculiar mutual dependence of the comic book protagonist/antagonist relationship and the strange emptiness that arises upon its dissolution forms the basis of Dreamworks’ Megamind an exuberant new animated comedy from director Tom McGrath (The Madagascar films) and writers Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons.
Funnyman Will Ferrell lends his voice to the title character a blue-skinned green-eyed alien whose mammoth hairless cranium has over the course of his career as a supervillain given life to an endless array of exotic inventions and elaborate schemes all in the service of his lifelong dream of conquering his adopted hometown of Metro City. Despite his creativity and obvious intelligence he’s been continually thwarted in his efforts by the city’s champion Metro Man (Brad Pitt) a preening show-off whose otherworldly physical gifts seem destined to forever trump Megamind’s cerebral ones.
Accustomed as he is to defeat Megamind is as surprised as anyone when he learns that his latest attempt at vanquishing his arch-rival has met with success. At a press conference convened to celebrate his newfound dominion over Metro City he is utterly flummoxed when the town’s ace reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) presses him to reveal what sinister plans he has in store for the panicked populace. So focused was Megamind on his rivalry with Metro Man that he hadn’t bothered to ponder what he’d do in the unlikely event that he won.
Together with his sidekick a fish-headed cyborg named Minion (David Cross) Megamind rampages unhindered through Metro City terrorizing its citizenry and amassing untold riches. But these pursuits don’t yield nearly the joy he’d anticipated they would and having belatedly discovered that the evil journey is more important than the evil destination he begins pining for his old nemesis Metro Man.
I found myself missing him as well. From Dr. Evil to Despicable Me humanizing supervillains for comedic effect has been an exceedingly popular pastime in Hollywood in recent years. Less common is the examination of insufferably pompous “heroes” like Metro Man whose massive egos and diva antics are made tolerable only by their immense contributions to society. (Think Steve Jobs or Eliot Spitzer or Bono ...) Megamind opts to take the road more traveled and at times its story can’t help but feel like a bit of a re-hash despite how artfully rendered it is.
What it lacks in inventiveness Megamind makes up in wit intelligence and customarily gorgeous animation. After a truly dazzling opening act it wanders through a mid-point malaise before gradually gaining momentum as Megamind recognizing how hollow and meaningless his existence is without a worthy adversary with which to spar decides to literally manufacture one. But he is appalled to find that his new creation Titan (Jonah Hill) is far more interested in playing video games and acquiring shiny new toys than re-igniting the age-old battle between good and evil. When Titan's increasing nihilism imperils Metro City it's Megamind who emerges to defend it completing his unlikely journey from villain to hero to finally superhero.
While the first two Shrek films scored high praise from both critics and audiences the third installment of the animated saga 2007’s Shrek the Third was widely considered a letdown a signal that Dreamworks’ wildly successful franchise had finally jumped the shark. But that didn’t deter the studio from greenlighting a fourth Shrek film Shrek Forever After with the somewhat dubious assurance that it would be the last to feature the titular green ogre.
The plot of Shrek Forever After in many ways reflects the creative fatigue the filmmakers clearly feel: After fathering triplets with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) Shrek (Mike Myers) has settled into a wearisome domestic routine of morning feedings clogged bathrooms and neighborhood pot lucks. But a domesticated Shrek is a boring Shrek and he soon longs to escape the tedium of family life and return to the carefree days when all the creatures of the forest feared his roar. But how? He's stuck.
Or so it seems until a lispy local charlatan Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn doing a solid Paul Reubens impression) offers Shrek a magical “deal” enabling him to turn back the clock for a day and spend 24 hours without the oppressive dictates of family life which the beleaguered ogre eagerly accepts. But fairytale contracts rarely come without hidden caveats and Shrek soon awakens in a nightmarish bizarro world where his family and friends have vanished and ogres are hunted by vicious gangs of witches. Worst of all Rumpelstiltskin has managed to install himself as Far Far Away’s decadent dictator turning the castle into some sort of crazy lesbian nightclub where his witchy subordinates gyrate to pounding techno music.
Call it It’s a Wonderful Shrek — or even Shrek to the Future if you will. It’s not the most original storytelling scheme but it allows the filmmakers to essentially hit the reset button on the Shrek canon and re-introduce familiar faces like Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) in slightly tweaked form. Fiona is no longer a dainty princess awaiting her savior but the butched-out (this emerges as a trend in the film) leader of an underground ogre resistance plotting to free Far Far Away from its effete Napoleon and his haggish minions. In order to avoid vanishing from history entirely Shrek has to woo her all over again — a task made harder by her newfound independent streak.
Fans of Shrek will be happy to know that Shrek Forever After — its weird butch/femme dynamic notwithstanding — marks a definite improvement over its predecessor. That said it won’t likely inspire any grassroots campaign to convince Dreamworks to reconsider its supposed decision to retire the character for good. The film works partly because it carries more modest aspirations largely shunning the laugh-a-minute pace and copious pop-culture humor that characterized the first three installments. The franchise is clearly running on fumes but this film has just enough laughter in the tank to make it to the finish line intact.
One final note: The 3D aspect of Shrek Forever After is surprisingly mundane adding little to the overall viewing experience. It’s disappointing considering that Dreamworks just recently did such terrific work on the 3D sequences in How to Train Your Dragon. Save your cash and hit a 2D showing instead.
Poor Shrek (Mike Myers). The irascible ogre just can’t catch a break. First he has to leave his beloved swamp to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Then he marries her and has to go meet the in-laws. NOW he’s stuck in Far Far Away as its de facto ruler after the frog king croaks. Oh and he finds out Fiona is pregnant too. All this throws the great green one into a tailspin because 1) impending fatherhood scares the bejeezus out him and 2) he believes he has no business being king. So Shrek sets out with his pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to fetch Artie aka Arthur (Justin Timberlake) Fiona’s cousin and next in line for the throne. Thing is Artie’s just a teenager—and kind of a loser one at that; he really doesn’t want to be king either. Meanwhile on the home front Fiona and her merry band of princesses have to defend the castle against the vain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) who’s hell bent on getting revenge and taking over Far Far Away. And so the high jinks ensure. But it’s OK it all works out in the end. Certainly part of Shrek’s charm is its vocal talent. Myers Diaz and Murphy are all old pros by now—which is actually a good and bad thing. They are definitely more comfortable with their roles but Shrek isn’t nearly as charmingly irritable as he once was and Fiona not as feisty. Guess they are growing up. And Murphy used to get all the best lines as the jittery Donkey. Now that job has been delegated to the likes of Banderas as Puss as well as side characters such as the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) Pinocchio (Cody Cameron) and the Three Little Pigs (also Cameron). Also adding to the humor are the various princesses especially SNL alums Amy Poehler as the sardonic Snow White and Maya Rudolph as turncoat Rapunzel plus Amy Sedaris as the dimwitted Cinderella. Timberlake is sweetly goofy as Artie while Brit comic legend Eric Idle voices the New Age-y on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Merlin the magician with aplomb. It’s these characterizations that make Shrek the Third zing. Much like Shrek 2 this third installment ultimately comes off as a retread. They just haven’t been able to recapture the magic created in the original. Instead the filmmakers regurgitate the same comic set ups and in some cases the same jokes. Maybe they won’t ever be able to reach that same plateau. But you’ve still got to give the Shrek franchise props for being the granddaddy of fairy-tale spoofs. Even if the sequels don’t measure up the Shrek phenomenon on the whole has set the bar creating a certain charisma in the let’s-make-fun-of-traditional-lore milieu. Shrek the Third highlights include: Worcestershire High School where Artie goes to school which is full of John Hughes teenagers talking in medieval oh-thou-di’nt-just-say-that speak; Charming being relegated to doing third-rate dinner theater; Pinocchio trying to talk his way around not lying and more. Oh who cares what us dumb critics say anyway. Kids are going to love Shrek the Third regardless of whether it hits the mark or not.