by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $130 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
2010 was a very successful year for feature-length animation. Now, when one looks at the year in animated film and tries to determine how good of a year it was, they cannot just cast their eye in the direction of the Disney-DreamWorks-Pixar circle trust and judge it solely from there. I mean, they can and it should factor in to a large percentage of that – they are the biggest animation companies in the Western world at the moment, after all – but the true indicator of just how successful a year it has been for animation comes from the efforts of other studios and how their works hold up qualitatively and financially which, for 2010, was rather well indeed.
In terms of the big three, DreamWorks put out three solid hits – How To Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Megamind (sort of, we’ll get to that) – two of which were creative and critical successes, whilst Disney properly kick-started their second renaissance with the financial smash of critical hit Tangled, and Pixar put out Toy Story 3 so I really don’t need to go into detail with that. They carried the year very well, but there was activity outside of those. My Dog Tulip was an indie darling that did decent box office numbers, Zack Snyder tried to make an ambitious and dark fantasy epic with Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole that did very well overseas, Alpha & Omega is a dog turd in a bucket made out of Xenomorph piss but made enough money to justify a direct-to-DVD series that’s still inexplicably going to this day.
Oh, yeah, and Despicable Me happened.
In fact, I’m gonna go ahead right now and state this for the record: as a fan of the Despicable Me series overall, I still don’t quite get why Despicable Me was the one that broke through into the mainstream public consciousness. Every year, of the tens of animated films that get released into the wild by studios that aren’t part of that circle trust I previously mentioned, one breaks through into mainstream acceptance and becomes the next big franchise. It’s a recent thing, and some years end up having that big film come from DreamWorks anyway, but it is a thing nonetheless – Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs in 2009, Despicable Me in 2010, Rango and Rio in 2011, Hotel Transylvania in 2012, The Croods in 2013 (because pretty much everything else was a sequel), and The Lego Movie in 2014.
Now, in fairness, Despicable Me is a good film – although I never found it to be great and vastly prefer the better paced, better structured, wackier, funnier, more surprisingly heartfelt and just plain better Despicable Me 2 – and I much prefer it being the breakout in a rather quiet year than f*cking Alpha & Omega, but I’ve never fully gotten why. The first film is flawed – a lot of the non-physical gags don’t land, the heart isn’t quite earned, and many of the voice performances are just awful – and forgettable, yet it became the film that everybody went back to again and again and again. My best guess is the same as my guess for why Madagascar became a hit: the funny comic relief side characters (Penguins in Madagascar, Minions in Despicable Me) and the collective belief that a sequel will fully realise the potential that is frequently hinted at but never quite reached.
Despicable Me, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets women into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick. Megamind, for those not in the know, follows an ineffectual supervillain who wishes to become the most evilest supervillain of them all, but has a change of heart and becomes a hero of sorts after he lets a woman into his personal life and discovers that, deep down, he actually has real feelings and cares about other people that are not his minions or his steadfastly loyal sidekick.
Can you see why Megamind was doomed from the get-go?
Now, I am not saying that Megamind and Despicable Me ripped one another off. Of course I’m not, animation lead times are hellish and whichever one of these films came out first would have had the advantage of not being seen as a rip-off of the other. What I am saying, is that an uninformed public may end up seeing it that way and they’re unlikely to turn up for a second go-around if they look too similar to one another. DreamWorks had gotten away with it before with Antz and Shark Tale, but both of those looked very distinct from the films they were going up against, Antz came first and Shark Tale was a year removed from Finding Nemo. In a darkly funny way, being late to the punch and suffering for it, this is basically karma finally coming for DreamWorks Animation.
Like it or not, Despicable Me will have been at least partially responsible for the lower-than-average gross for Megamind. It may not have been such a problem if Despicable Me wasn’t A Thing, but it was A Thing and it ended up being a breath of fresh air in the animated medium – I’m assuming, my guess being that it was an animated comedy with real heart and few pop culture references – and so Megamind ended up suffering in comparison in the public eye. After all, here was a DreamWorks film. The third in a year, no less! It had been 9 years since the first Shrek and, since most of the animation medium had decided to poorly copy that film’s way of doing things, people were tired of the DreamWorks formula by this point.
The film opened OK, first place and $46 million is nothing to sniff at, but was still somewhat below par for a DreamWorks film with 3D bells and whistles – especially since 66% of its opening weekend came from 3D showings at the height of the 3D craze. It held well in weekend no. 2, only slipping 37% and beating off Unstoppable which was a real movie that existed and not some kind of amazingly stupid fever dream we collectively had, but any hopes of a long run on the chart were collectively dashed by four words that sent the entire box office sprinting for cover: Deathly Hallows, Part 1. The combination of that opening in Week 3 and Disney’s Tangled opening in Week 4 signalled a very swift end to Megamind’s domestic box office fortunes; it dropped out after Week 6.
Considering that one-two punch, one would wonder why DreamWorks didn’t simply push the release date forward a bit, perhaps into October. Problem is, DreamWorks were very much in a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” situation with Megamind. Too early and Despicable Me would be too fresh in the audience’s minds and that would harm Megamind’s box office even more. Too late and they’d have to push it into January/February of 2011, the cinematic dead zone and creating the problem of having three films coming out in relatively close proximity to one another in 2011; essentially postponing the burnout problem another 12 months. Plus, in October, a very large number of 3D screens were taken by Jackass 3D and Katzenberg’s very public uproar over the competition foisted upon How To Train Your Dragon back in March probably convinced him to keep schtum this time.
So it didn’t do particularly great in the US. Problem is that overseas grosses weren’t particularly great, either. DreamWorks films that don’t do great financially domestically typically, not always but typically, make up for that with very strong overseas sales – Penguins Of Madagascar has crashed and burned domestically (it won’t even cross $80 million by the time it finally closes) but is at least trying to force its way into profitability with a slow but strong overseas performance. Megamind, for whatever reason, never managed to do that. Therefore, the film, although not a bomb, is one of the lower grossing entries into the more recent DreamWorks canon – although that bar keeps getting lowered/raised with each passing entry, to be frank.
Despicable Me is certainly one reason, three DreamWorks films in one year is definitely another (I have talked before about the DreamWorks release plan so I won’t repeat myself), and the fact that it looked very much like The DreamWorks Movie certainly didn’t help matters. In fact, after having viewed the film and tweeted out how I prefer it to Despicable Me 1 – like you’re surprised, if you’ve followed this series or any of my writings on this site, you saw this coming – a friend of mine replied with surprise at my position as they found it to be “the most DreamWorks-ass movie they’ve ever made.” And I am inclined to agree with that statement, name a DreamWorks Animation trope – pop culture references, expensive sounding licensed soundtrack, characters that resemble their voice actors more than a little too much, a Dance Party Ending – and it probably shows up here at some point.
But, crucially, Megamind also perfectly encapsulates just how far DreamWorks Animation had come since their commonly accepted dark age. See, Megamind has a fair bit going on in it. The DreamWorks of old would have taken its superhero parody premise, filled in the blank spaces with the bare minimum of character work and pop culture references, and then called it a day. Megamind instead fills its blanks with the bare minimum of pop culture references – the bigger ones being relevant to the genre the film is occasionally parodying and therefore making sense – a very good amount of character work, a surprising amount of heart, and a vicious and relevant deconstruction of the Dogged Yet Determined Nice Guy trope. It’s not original, Christ no, but it is highly entertaining and, as I have said before, films don’t have to be original to be great.
Now, I am going to be frank, a part of me did sigh dejectedly when Roxie ended up not being the one who gets forcibly injected with the hero serum – after all, DreamWorks have a (previously discussed) female problem and, if this was pulled off well (because it could also have gone so horribly wrong), giving Roxie powers and making her Megamind’s self-created nemesis would have provided so many potentially brilliant plotlines. However, the serum going to Hal allows Megamind to touch on its best theme: loudly telling young boys that they are entitled to jack sh*t when it comes to women.
What do the movies typically teach us? The hero gets the girl. The good guy gets the girl. The dogged nice guy is rewarded for his patience and persistence by getting the girl. If your soulmate is currently with the wrong guy, a lunky meathead who is cool and awesome whilst you’re a sad lonely nerd, she will eventually realise that it should have been you all along and will come around if you just don’t stop trying to convince her. This is why “friendzoning” is a thing. We are very much a culture of entitlement, men are entitled to their dream girl and the guy that gets in the way of that is a horrible jock asshole and any girl who rejects you just doesn’t realise how special you are, despite just how f*cking abhorrent that entire philosophy is, and it’s why tragic events like the Isla Vita massacre end up happening.
So Megamind gets across just how non-OK that is by making Hal the villain. Without powers, his constant hitting on Roxie even long after she has made it quite clear that she is not interested is an annoyance and creepy, but not especially threatening since he can’t do anything about it. With powers, his entitlement overtakes his being and he now has the means with which to actually lash out at the world when everything he has been promised isn’t dropped into his lap. Roxie is in love with Bernard – or, at least, who she thinks is Bernard, we’ll get back to that in a minute – and Hal suddenly sprouting powers and pecs does not cause her libido to suddenly gain feelings for him. She wasn’t interested in him before because he was rather creepy and overly forward and unable to let the crush go, and she’s not interested in him now since all the powers have done is give him the strength to act on those creepy and overly forward impulses. Her rejection is what spurs him to turn evil, but it’s clear that he would have gone this way at some point regardless of how things turned out with Roxie.
To put it another way: a big message of a big expensive animated kids’ movie aimed at young boys is “No means no. Always. No exceptions. You aren’t entitled to sh*t.” Ain’t that something rather amazing?
This all being said, Megamind does very much risk undercutting this message in three ways. 1] There are quite a few times, pre-powers, where Hal’s creepy hitting on Roxie is played more for laughs than “this is not OK”-ness. I’m not 100% certain about this, because I’m not sure how much I’m projecting my own beliefs onto this movie and how much is the film mashing that “not OK” button (all of its prior attempts at getting jokes from that fall flat for me, you see, so I’m not certain how much of the film is properly playing it for laughs), but it’s there nonetheless. 2] The finale still ends with Megamind himself having won Roxie after proving himself to be a nice guy hero deep down, although that problem is somewhat nipped by a large chunk of the movie being devoted to showing the two of them mutually falling in love with each other. Mind, that also brings us to…
…3] much of that romance occurs with Megamind tricking Roxie into believing that he is somebody else, with him taking the form of Bernard. No matter how real and genuinely touching the rest of their relationship is built on, there’s still the issue of the fact that Megamind built much of his relationship with Roxie on a lie. A lie that he is rewarded for, even after the jig is revealed and Roxie reacts understandably betrayed and angry, by getting the girl after rescuing her from Hal/Titan. Now, this whole plotline and development isn’t exactly something made up specifically for Megamind, the film is a parody of comic books and superheroes and this kind of thing crops up there too (I’m assuming) so it carries problematic undertones anywhere (see also: any plotline that involves love potions of any kind), but those uncomfortable undertones still sit there regardless.
Yet, I honestly don’t find them a film-killer, like they should be, and I put that all down to the film’s incredibly strong character work. The relationship between Megamind and Roxie feels very real, very honest, very spontaneous. Although the film makes it somewhat clear from the outset that the two are going to end up together – this is a film, after all, apparently only Hayao Miyazaki understands that the lead man and the lead woman don’t need to get together by the rolling of the end credits – this isn’t apparent to the characters. Megamind doesn’t kidnap Roxie at the outset because he has secret deep-down feelings for her, the film repeatedly makes it very clear that he’s only doing that because that’s what villains are supposed to do and he views her as somewhat of an annoyance – crucially, the film itself doesn’t, which is why she’s a very entertaining and interesting character despite being shunted into the two roles that women are apparently supposed to play in blockbuster action films.
The first time Megamind properly hangs out with Roxie, as in not keeping himself from being discovered by her, it’s not even in a romantic context. Or, at least, an openly romantic one. It starts very much as a position of his enjoying her company and wishing to spend more time with her, and his not realising that the true extent of his affections for her being love until later. Vice versa for Roxie, it’s very much two friends slowly realising that they have a deeper bond than just being friends and it’s that naturalness and realness that’s able to transcend the somewhat… iffy details surrounding it. For me, at least. No, it doesn’t much help the film’s case that a good chunk of this is dealt with in one Electric Light Orchestra backed montage, but the relationship between the two is very much the centre and backbone of the movie and the execution of everything surrounding that is why it all still works.
See, Megamind’s arc feels natural. It feels sincere. He may seem like he’s deciding to become a hero because of the love of a woman, but the reality is that that’s only one part of it. For one, he never really wanted to become a villain in the first place, society bullied him into it because school kids are the f*cking worst. For two, there’s a good 10 to 15 minute stretch where the film loudly announces the fact that Megamind only got the fun out of the chase and actually finds the non-chase parts of villainy rather boring. And for three, his first instinct when he sees Titan running off the rails is to try and shut down his creation before it gets further out of control, proving that he’s always had good inside of him somewhere. The love of Roxie is a catalyst for that realisation of his change, but it’s not the sole reason and that’s why his arc feels genuine. There’s more to it, it’s built up over time, and where he ends up personally when the film closes makes sense based on what the film has shown us about him earlier. By contrast, Despicable Me’s shift in Gru’s character feels forced and ham-handed, arriving suddenly because the plot demands it and only really coming from the three girls – the only real foreshadowing coming from Gru not treating his Minions like garbage.
That’s why Megamind’s heart hits for me whilst Despicable Me’s does not, and why I prefer the former to the latter. Megamind has issues – the ratio of good jokes to “ugh” jokes is slightly less one-sided than I’d like it to be, animation quality is alright but not outstanding, art style and character designs are honestly really generic, there are no real “Wow!” stand-out moments – but its heart is in the right place and its heart works gangbusters. A joke machine is fine, but that means that a prolonged stretch of time where the jokes aren’t firing on all cylinders exposes the weaknesses in the rest of your film. Megamind, however, has stuff going on under the surface – mostly stuff that has been done before, with the exception of that whole entitlement angle, but it’s all very well executed in any case – and its emotional centre always feels genuine which means it tugs my heartstrings more than Despicable Me 1 did.
Also, that moment just before the title card where the studio version of George Thorogood & The Destroyers’ “Bad To The Bone” seamlessly transitions into a glorious orchestral version of said tune is brilliant and makes up for every mediocre-to-bad usage of that song for at least the last decade. What can I say? I’m a simple man of simple pleasures.
Megamind was a somewhat successful film critically and financially, although not the runaway that How To Train Your Dragon (critically) and Shrek Forever After (financially) had been. Of 2010’s DreamWorks Animation releases, it’s likely that the company regard it as the black sheep of the group, although the film does have its fans. Their next film, the first of two for 2011, would cement the standing of their third big film franchise, wow the critics, kill the foreign box office, and baffle everybody when, much like with How To Train Your Dragon and its first instalment, it was passed over for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Next week, it’s Kung Fu Panda 2.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch can taste the bright lights but he won’t get them for free. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!