LOS ANGELES — Ben Stiller has made a career of playing lovable losers. So he didn’t need much convincing when two unknown screenwriters pitched a story about a failed villain who faces a midlife crisis after accidentally defeating his nemesis.
“I just thought it was funny to see this super villain have this existential sort of quandary about what his life is all about,” Stiller said about Megamind — the blue-headed bad guy at the center of DreamWorks Animation’s new 3-D film opening Friday. “He’s just like a guy who has never stopped asking, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I running on this treadmill?’ “
Stiller has only a small role in “Megamind” — giving voice to an archivist named Bernard whose form Megamind assumes to woo a Lois Lane-type reporter (Tina Fey). But he played a big part in getting the project launched.
Stiller’s production company, Red Hour Films, took the project to DreamWorks because the actor has a close relationship with the animation house and director Tom McGrath — the pair worked together on the “Madagascar” films. (Stiller played Alex the lion, while McGrath served as the voice for Skipper, the unflappable penguin commando leader.)
McGrath recalled how Stiller and DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg sold him on the film during a press junket for “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” two years ago.
“It was just too good of an idea to pass up,” McGrath said of telling a story from the villain’s point of view.
DreamWorks and distributor Paramount Pictures hope audiences agree. “Megamind” tells the story of an inept super villain voiced by Will Ferrell, who is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to conquer Metro City by the caped superhero known as Metro Man (Brad Pitt), until he actually defeats him. When a new villain unleashes chaos in Metro City, the world’s biggest “mind” faces an identity crisis.
The film, which debuted in Russia and the Ukraine last weekend and has earned a solid $9.5 million so far, marks the first time that the studio has released three computer-animated movies in the same year. It underscores DreamWorks Animation’s rapid growth and its ambition to build a library of original characters that can spur sequels, TV spinoffs and toy sales. The Glendale, Calif.-based studio is poised to post record revenue this year, thanks to “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Shrek Forever After,” the fourth Shrek film. Those two movies generated more than $1.2 billion in ticket sales worldwide.
“Megamind,” which cost at least $130 million, represents the studio’s first foray into the superhero genre, having previously mined zoo animals, fairy tale characters, dragons and aliens. Like Shrek, which turned the fairy tale archetype on its head, “Megamind” offers a twist on the superhero genre by transforming the villain into the man who saves the day.
In keeping with Katzenberg’s mandate to release all movies in 3-D, “Megamind” makes ample use of the new stereoscopic technology to bring depth and realism to epic battles, the buildings of Metro City and even the detailed light refractions from the fish bowl housing Megamind’s lackey, Minion.
Creating seamless 3-D was the goal, said stereoscopic supervisor Phil Captain 3D McNally (yes, that’s really his legal name). “There are very few explicit 3-D shots,” McNally said. “It plays naturally as part of the story.”
The film’s release culminates a seven-year journey for its writers, Alan Schoolcraft (who once served as an assistant to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen), and his Emerson College roommate, Brent Simons. “Megamind” is their first script that has been produced.
The movie “just came from us being huge fans of the genre,” said Simons, who drew inspiration partly from 1978’s “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner. “It started with the idea: ‘What if Lex Luthor killed Superman and didn’t know what to do with himself?’ That just kind of cracked us up.”
Red Hour initially conceived the project as a live-action comedy, but DreamWorks saw the story as ideal for computer animation. “Everything in ‘Megamind’ is in the realm of computer graphics, where you can push things a little further than you could in live-action and still be right there with the characters,” McGrath said.
For “Madagascar,” McGrath directed and thus was Stiller’s boss. On “Megamind,” the roles were somewhat reversed, with Stiller serving as executive producer. Although “Megamind” was produced by Lara Breay (formerly vice president of Red Hour Films) and Denise Nolan Cascino, Stiller gave McGrath key guidance on scenes, dialogue and casting.
McGrath thought of Stiller for the role of Tighten, a nerdy cameraman who gains superpowers, but Stiller instead suggested Jonah Hill, with whom he had worked on “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.”
“His advice was invaluable to me and really helped shape the movie in great ways,” McGrath said.
“It’s really a very challenging medium because there are so many choices to be made,” said Stiller, who has already tapped McGrath to work on an animated Web series based on his hit film “Zoolander.” “The possibilities of what you can do are pretty wide open.”