With the market for multiplex 3D animation becoming as saturated as it is, it is, perhaps, inevitable the films should start to repeat themselves. DreamWorks' Megamind is one of two rival comedy animation projects to take up more or less where the final reel of the gold-standard The Incredibles left off. Despicable Me had Steve Carell and Russell Brand among its voice artists; this one has Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Jonah Hill, plus Ben Stiller on board as producer. You pays your money, you pay a little bit extra for the glasses, you takes your choice.
A smart nature-versus-nurture prologue sets out the long-term rivalry between the two central characters. The title character, voiced by Ferrell, is a socially inept would-be evil genius with a domed forehead and a BluTack-like pallor who pronounces the name of his hometurf Metro City to rhyme with "atrocity". His arch-nemesis is the square-jawed, conventionally handsome Metro Man, a too-good-to-be-true caped crusader who, at the inauguration of the museum commemorating his life and works, juggles babies and comes to walk on water. (Inevitably, the character is voiced by Brad Pitt.)
This pair have been fighting so long that it was always likely Megamind was going to get one over his opponent - monkeys and typewriters and all that - but when he finally does vanquish Metro Man and assumes control of the city, he quickly gets bored of such unchallenged power. His solution is to manufacture an entirely new adversary - rechristening as Titan the formerly klutzy TV cameraman Kit (Hill) - only for the latter to prove harder to control than originally expected. Both, it turns out, have the hots for news reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Fey), a damsel so often kidnapped and rescued she's now practically impossible to wow. Critics will know how she feels.
Judging by its box-office receipts, Despicable Me contained enough cute stuff to go over big with young cinemagoers. Megamind skews demographically older, its reference points - Donkey Kong, Brando in the Superman films, AM radio favourites Minnie Riperton and ELO - extending seemingly beyond even teenagers with some knowledge of comedy and comic-book conventions. (All the same, the film's ideal viewer would perhaps count Spider-Man and Anchorman among their favourite films.) Though the storyline raises the vaguest hint of a free will-versus-determinism theme, mostly the impression is once again of skilfully (in places, very skilfully) rendered distraction. The design work, writing and Ferrell's typically unpredictable rhythms combine to make Megamind himself one of the more distinctive characters in this particular tsunami of animation, but the film as a whole can't think of anything to do with his relentless shapeshifting save to make us laugh.
Again, it's a regrettable inevitability that one should feel obliged to make the comparison with Pixar, but that's the marketplace these films enter into, and Megamind never quite does anything as moving or oddly profound with its antagonist as the Toy Storys did with Buzz Lightyear. The one death scene here is played strictly for laughs, and it ends with a dance sequence because that's what the filmmakers have seen a half-dozen or so other successful releases do. (Director Tom McGrath's prior credits include Madagascar, so in a sense he's only continuing a trend he began.) It's something of a shame, as the film's timing is pretty much immaculate elsewhere, the Ferrell-Fey influence making itself apparent in a number of throwaway gags worthy of the pair's live-action work: Metro Man's concealed musical ambitions, say, or the door in Megamind's lair marked EXIT ("It's short for exciting") that duly opens onto a dozen alligators snapping away beneath a glitterball.
Megamind is on general release.