Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie *** ½ / *****
Directed by: David Soren.
Written by: Nicholas Stoller and David Soren based on the epic novels by Dav Pilkey.
Starring: Kevin Hart (George), Ed Helms (Captain Underpants / Mr. Krupp), Nick Kroll (Professor Poopypants), Thomas Middleditch (Harold), Jordan Peele (Melvin), Kristen Schaal (Edith), DeeDee Rescher (Ms. Ribble), Brian Posehn (Mr. Rected), David Soren (Tommy).
I make a special effort to take my daughter to every animated movie that is appropriate for her – whether I expect them to be good or bad. It’s because I love the movie going ritual, and I want her to love it as well. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – she will stubbornly become her own person one day – but at the very least I want her to be aware of what going to the movies can mean. It’s become our thing that we do together, and often I love it – there are a few animated films every year that are legitimately wonderful, but most are 90 minutes of inspired brightness, action and music – the time passes quickly enough, but doesn’t leave an impact. Sometimes, the movies are awful, but we go anyway – again, I want my daughter to be aware that not every movie is great – we go anyway. When I saw the preview of Captain Underpants, I knew we’d go to the movie – especially since my daughter laughed throughout. This wasn’t going to be a movie I could avoid, even if it looked dire. So it is with some surprise that I report that I mostly found the film to be an utter delight – the film is clever and funny, has a wonderful animation style, and full on embraces childhood silliness for 90 minutes. Is it ridiculous? Of course. Juvenile? In the extreme. It’s also a lot of fun.
The film is about two childhood friend – George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) – who are probably about 8, and are close in the way that only a pair of 8 year olds can be. They share a sense of humor, and their entire world is basically the two of them. Together they create comic books – and their “most famous” character is Captain Underpants – an overweight, middle-aged white guy, who flies around in his underwear and a cape, fighting crime. The pair have their own arch-nemesis, in Mr. Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms) – their short tempered Principal, who just knows that the pair of them are responsible for every prank in the school, but can never prove it. To make a long story short, eventually the pair of friends hypnotize Mr. Krupp with a ring from a cereal box, and convinced him he is the real Captain Underpants, and then eventually, he has to fight Professor Poppypants (Nick Kroll, giving an truly inspired vocal performance) – as a small, old German man, who poses as a science teacher as a cover for his evil intentions, as he is building a machine to rid the world of laughter, because he is tired of everyone making fun of his name. You know, that old plot.
The plot is probably the weakest part of the film – as there is so much to it, and it rushes by so quickly, that the entire film feels a little bit rushed. It is also not the reason to the see the film at all. The film is based on a series of books by Dav Pilkey – I’ve never read them to my daughter, but may have to start now, but I’ve seen them in bookstores, and the film wisely decides to keep the deliberately crude and cartoony visual look to those drawings. The film has a great let’s throw everything at the wall and see what will stick quality to its gags – there are throwaway visual gags that happen in the background, delightful comic asides and one-liners (an Oprah line made me laugh more than any single line in an American comedy so far this year).
Yes, the film is juvenile. Many of the jokes are toilet humor – in the action climax, literally – but its toilet humor aimed at children, so it’s not gross, just downright silly. This is the type of film that understands that humor that makes children laugh uncontrollably, while the clueless adults around them wonder what the hell is so funny. It’s funny, it’s goofy, it’s clever, it’s stupid, and it’s ridiculous. It’s not a great film – it does suffer from the same thing that many Dreamworks films do, in that it has the same house style in part, that make a film timely, than instantly date it – but it is a heck of a lot of fun. And for a film called Captain Underpants, isn’t that the best case scenario?