Captain Underpants makes the most of its silly and ridiculous premise by injecting high amounts of energy and laughter into the proceedings.
Best friends George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are notorious pranksters at Jerome Horowitz Elementary School, looking to provide their fellow students with a reprieve from the tyrannical lifestyle implemented by the curmudgeonly Principal Krupp (Ed Helms). Over the years, they’ve been responsible for a plethora of amusing gags, driving Krupp crazy with their antics. One day, after finally catching the troublesome duo on video pulling one of their practical jokes, Krupp threatens to place George and Harold in separate classes – which would effectively end their friendship. The boys are keen on staying together and try to formulate a plan.
Coming across some belongings of theirs Krupp has confiscated in his office, George uses a hypno-ring he got from a cereal box to try to hypnotize the principal. Surprising George and Harold, it actually works and Krupp will obey their every command. Having fun with it, the two tell Krupp to become Captain Underpants, a superhero they created in a series of humorous comic books. But what seems hysterical is about to become very serious, as Krupp’s transformation into Captain Underpants coincides with the arrival of new science teacher Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) – a super villain with a diabolical plan. It’s up to the Captain and his trusty sidekicks George and Harold to save the day.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on the children’s novel series of the same name that ran from 1997 to 2015. The popular books are well-known for their irreverent sense of lowbrow fourth-grade humor and seemed ripe for a film adaptation of this nature due to the creativity on display in the source material. The hope going into this project was that it would make for a fun time at the theater, and by most accounts, it’s largely successful. Captain Underpants makes the most of its silly and ridiculous premise by injecting high amounts of energy and laughter into the proceedings.
Directed by David Soren (Shark Tale, Turbo), the greatest strength of Captain Underpants is its faithful and spirited translation from page to screen. The filmmaker, along with screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets, Neighbors) capture the tone of author Dav Pilkey’s original novels, making the characters come to life in an imaginative way. Making use of the medium as a whole, Soren implements entertaining fourth-wall breaks and incorporates several different styles of animation for various sequences. There’s rarely a dull moment in the movie as it moves along at a breakneck pace for its svelte 89-minute runtime. One of the underlying themes and morals of the property is to let your imagination soar, and Soren certainly does that here.
The voice-over performances by the cast are all solid across the board. Hart proves to be an excellent choice for George with his energetic and boisterous delivery. He has great chemistry with Middleditch, who supplies Harold with the right amount of boyish wonder and charm. Helms, however, is the real star of the show, essentially pulling off two separate roles. In one moment, he’s convincing as every kids’ worst nightmare as the ill-tempered Krupp and then quickly shifts gears to the sweet naivety of Captain Underpants. The actor’s superhero persona comes across as a well-meaning (yet dumber) Superman and will probably be the favorite for the target audience. For the antagonist Professor Poopypants, Kroll does a riff on the generic “mad scientist” archetype and definitely has a blast with the material. That said, there isn’t much to his character other than to serve as a threat and propel the plot forward.
While Soren’s heart is certainly in the right place, Captain Underpants is obviously an animated movie geared more for the youngsters in attendance (as opposed to the broader family appeal of Pixar’s best efforts), which prevents it from truly transcending its genre. If one no longer finds potty humor funny, then there won’t be much to latch onto since the movie definitely stays true to the brand and doubles down on those kinds of jokes and gags. The way the main narrative comes together is also a little haphazard in its execution, stretching suspension of disbelief even for a kids’ film. These flaws aren’t enough to completely derail the picture, but still hinder Captain Underpants from soaring to great heights. The mad-dash and gleefully cartoony aesthetic makes the movie thoroughly entertaining for kids, and adults will have to sit back and just enjoy the ride.
Despite the overabundance of bodily function wisecracks (which, again, is a hallmark of the property), Stoller is able to provide the script with a fair amount of earnestness and heart. Underneath the surface, there’s a touching story about the importance of having friends and finding things in life to laugh at. Captain Underpants also makes for a funny parody of the superhero movie genre in general, being more relevant in today’s pop culture landscape than when it was first introduced 20 years ago. During an era where more and more costumed characters are seeing increasingly dramatic interpretations that strive to be grounded and serious, it’s nice to see conventions get turned on their head and have a director point out how goofy this can all be. Soren and Stoller’s enthusiastic handling of the material might encourage even the stuffiest grown-ups to rediscover the kid inside them. It’s hard not to get caught up in the antics of George and Harold.
In the end, Captain Underpants provides the summer movie season with a fresh and at times hilarious offering for children and their parents willing to buy in. It doesn’t exactly break any new ground in storytelling, but it’s a visually interesting and well-meaning film crafted with care. Those familiar with the books on which the feature is based on should be able to have a fun time with it, and anyone looking for something to take the kids to would be encouraged to make the trek to the theater. For something called Captain Underpants, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 89 minutes and is rated PG for mild rude humor throughout.
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