Several years ago, it seems, DreamWorks Animation seemed to have turned a major corner with How to Train Your Dragon - or was it really just this past March? It feels longer, at any rate, since that film came along and showed that the studio born from Jeffrey Katzenberg's pathological (and entirely justifiable) hatred of Michael Eisner could actually produce a motion picture of great warmth, comedy, and visual excellence, good enough to compete with the big kids at Pixar. The incipient promise of Dragon was given a savage beating by Shrek Forever After, but that was to be expected from a Shrek picture; it's only now that the corpse of the very short DreamWorks Renaissance has been officially embalmed with Megamind, the rare kind of motion picture which not only puts all of its funniest stuff in the trailer, but in which that same funny stuff is actually less successful, given its proper context. A context entirely overdependent on the music supervisor's "Hard Rock's Biggest Hits" mix CD.

So here's what happens in Brent Simons & Alan J. Schoolcraft's script - first-timers both: there's a blue-skinned alien with a giant head who styles himself Megamind (Will Ferrell), and has staked out a claim to be the great supervillain of Metro City. At the same time, there's another alien, one with rather more movie-star looks (he in fact appears to be modeled on Alec Baldwin with a bigger chin, and he's voiced by Brad Pitt in George Clooney mode) named Metro Man, defender of all that is good. Megamind's single aim in life is to best Metro Man, concocting scheme after scheme endangering the pretty reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey) in order to do so. Yes, it's Superman vs. a version of Brainiac who acts like Lex Luthor. The movie knows it, and expects you to know it too.

The plot doesn't start until Megamind, quite by accident, kills Metro Man. Suddenly bereft of a super-antagonist, he is able to make Metro City his personal fiefdom, but quickly learns that he has no actual interest in winning; the thrill is all in the fight. And so he quickly throws together a plan to use some of Metro Man's DNA to create a new super-hero, accidentally giving powers to Hal Stewart (Jonah Hill), Roxanne's über-nerd cameraman. Christening his new antagonist "Titan" or "Tighten", depending on which on-screen spelling you believe - for a gag, the movie is resolutely unconcerned with presenting this detail in any sort of amusing manner - Megamind is thrilled to get back into the swing of things; but then, Hal goes a little bit bugfuck after Roxanne refuses to fall in love with him, and to his dismay, Megamind discovers that all he's done is create a bigger and badder supervillain.

The part where he learns to be a good person has to do with him falling in love with Roxanne while he's disguised as a human bureaucrat named Bernard. All of this, by the way, is much easier to follow when you're watching it than it seems in print.

Megamind is such a perfect catalogue of all the worst tendencies of DreamWorks Animation's output over the last decade that I'm almost tempted to give it points just for its encyclopedic value. A story drenched in pop culture references? Like I said, the whole thing is a postmodern revisioning of the Superman/Luthor paradigm. Characters who are phenomenally well-versed in out-of-date pop music? "Highway to Hell", "Crazy Train", "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Back in Black" don't just pop up on the soundtrack, they're effectively plot points. Humor that doesn't even pretend to serve anyone but the tired adults dragged along as chaperones? Hell yes, unless you suppose that a flimsy impersonation of Marlon Brando's role in Superman is just what the kiddies are clamoring for these days. Asinine, unfunny jokes? The most predominant running gag involves Megamind's inability to pronounce common words, particularly his insistence on calling Metro City "Me-trah-sitty". Famous voice actors cast solely for their marquee value? Almost exclusively - but not, surprisingly enough, including Ferrell, whose rendering of a self-aggrandizing dorky loser is miles better than anything he's done in live action in years. Hill is just playing a vanilla animated version of the standard Jonah Hill aggressive jackass nerd character; Fey doesn't give a damn if you can tell that she doesn't care about the project (and why should she, it plays to none of her strengths as a comedian); Pitt REALLY doesn't give a damn if you can tell that he doesn't care; David Cross, as Megamind's faithful fish-monster sidekick Minion, puts a bit of effort into being goofy and cheerful, but it sounds too much like David Cross to stop being distracting. Though Cross's character is just about the only subtle joke in the whole movie, an unstressed visual reference to the title creature in the legendary bad movie Robot Monster.

On the other hand, it looks a lot better than most DreamWorks films; lacking the epic reach and sense of scale that made Dragon so rich and fulfilling, nor attempting in even the smallest degree to tap into the texture, painterly quality that has left Kung Fu Panda still the most beautiful film from that studio. But there are still pleasing aspects to the character design, especially Megamind's (though I will admit to finding Hal's spindly legs quite viscerally disgusting); Metro City itself is a gorgeous attempt to capture the sense of a Silver Age comic book metropolis without specifically quoting any of them. And with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro lending his advice to the lighting team (this recent trend of hiring A-list cinematographers as consultants on animated films has left all of us winners), the whole thing has a really classy look, with director Tom McGrath (of the Madagascar pictures) finding generally nice ways to frame the action in such a way that the film is both detailed and uncluttered. It is not a revelatory work of visual art; but it looks so much better than the bulk of DreamWorks's output, that it would be churlish not to mention.

And at the same time, idiotic to pretend that it matters. As much as it's not ugly, Megamind is still such a grinding chore of a story and a comedy, that anything else is just trying to negotiate how low of a bad grad the whole thing gets. Oh DreamWorks, we know you can achieve greatness; why do you so eagerly refuse to do so?