The universe of animated feature films is a realm of unlimited possibilities. In just the last year or so, moviegoers have seen dragon training, meatballs raining, monsters fighting aliens, dinosaurs in the Ice Age and, of course, a flying house. Often two releases the come out within a few months of each other are awfully similar, as with 1998's Battle of the Bugs, in which "A Bug's Life" easily outdrew "Antz".
But there's something unprecedented about two new cartoon theatricals starring self-proclaimed supervillains: "Despicable Me," opening Friday, and "Megamind," coming Nov. 5.
Sure, the bad guy who upstages the good guy is such a cliche that Disney has developed a Disney Villains merchandising franchise. Lovable rogues, anti-heroes and reformed villains are also common cartoon characters.
But outside of horror movies and HBO, those who are evil, and proud of it, rarely play the lead role, let alone the title. The closest thing in recent years was "Monsters Inc.," where the main monsters scared children because it was their job.
These two new movies actually feature two different kinds of supervillains. Will Ferrell's "Megamind" is straight out of the comic books, a Braniac-esque alien with a giant head and trendy blue skin. "Despicable Me's" Gru is more of a James Bond-style evil genius, voiced by Steve Carell, looking like a mix between Austin Powers' Dr. Evil and Uncle Fester from "The Addams Family" with a somewhere-in-Eastern-Europe accent.
There's no heroic adversary in Gru's story to thwart him, just a Bill Gates-lookalike supervillain rival who upstages him at every opportunity (often with Spy vs. Spy-style cartoon violence), goading him into planning the ultimate cartoon criminal act: stealing the moon.
When Gru enlists the aid of a trio of aggressively cute orphans for his nefarious scheme, they decide to adopt him. In any context other than a cartoon, the scenario would be totally creepy: a middle-aged single man living in a big spooky house with no obvious source of income adopting three little girls? But these kids really do see him as a father figure and will do whatever it takes to win him over, raising a whole other issue ... Gru could be raising the next generation of supervillains.
"Despicable Me" is the first release from Illumination Entertainment, a partnership of Universal Studios and "Ice Age" producer Chris Meledandri, specifically created to provide all-audience films.
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Meledandri sees no problem with this villainous debut, declaring in an interview, "After years of taking my sons to the movies and having them leave the theatre with the villain as their favorite character, we decided to make a movie where the villain is the protagonist."
Plenty of discussion, detailed storyboarding and trial screenings went toward the goal of making Gru evil yet empathetic, with Meledandri concluding "It's safe to root for someone to steal the moon."
The trailer for "Megamind" emphasizes the relationship of Ferrell's supervillain Megamind and his nemesis, superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt), yet the plot synopsis released by the studio points out that the main story only begins after Metro Man is accidentally killed and Megamind attempts to create a new heroic opponent. (Note the word "accidentally," without which this movie possibly could not have been made.) When the new hero turns evil, it forces a role reversal upon the title character.
With Ben Stiller as an executive producer (after he bowed out of voicing the title role), it's not surprising if "Megamind" pushes the family-friendly envelope. But killing off a presumed major character in the first 15 minutes makes Brad Pitt in "Megamind" comparable to Bambi's Mom, or even worse, Janet Leigh in "Psycho." And that's not a good comparison for an otherwise Dreamworks-style (light, jokey and celebrity-voice dominated) cartoon.
Still, these are animated features with no worse than PG ratings and by the time the closing credits run, both movies' star villains will certainly have earned some redemption, becoming, if not really good, noticeably less evil. It's also certain that some children will be disturbed, others confused, awkward parent-child conversations will ensue and outrage will generate from the easily outraged.
But if you look close enough, you'll find content some consider inappropriate in most classic cartoons —and all of the best ones. Having a supervillain for a protagonist is just a little more obvious example than most. Sometimes, the most valuable thing a movie can provide is a bad example.
Craig Wittler is a media writer and long-time blogger living in San Luis Obispo, Calif.