Most superheroes look like they’re wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes. What this movie gleefully presupposes is: Maybe one can. The presumptuously titled Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, based on Dav Pilkey’s first four children’s books in the Captain Underpants series (all of which have amusingly lengthy titles themselves), pokes a lot of fun at the concept of superheroes, the concept of action movies and the very cinematic medium in which it’s found itself.
Created accidentally by prankster elementary schoolers George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), Captain Underpants provides a harmless bit of antagonizing to his alter-ego, principal/despot Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Like all movies about botched experimental creations, Captain Underpants starts off with harmless stakes. Krupp hates the two boys and their antics so much that he threatens to end their friendship, so, after going through the requisite whoopee cushions and joy buzzers, the boys discover it’s finally a cereal box hypnosis ring they can use to strike back against their cruel taskmaster. When the boys snap their fingers, Krupp loses his toupee, attitude and clothing to become their own comic book creation: Captain Underpants. Krupp finds earnestness and confidence as the near-nude crimefighter enamored with his own (made-up) legend.
The movie looks very different from what you may expect from Dreamworks animation: Mikros Image, the animation company behind The Little Prince, gives this parodic world a soft, matte roundness that looks as inviting for kids as its lowbrow jokes sound. Its script by Nicholas Stoller hits far more often than it misses, though some self-congratulatory dialogue (characters mentioning how funny/stupid/crazy a joke is while pointing at the joke) and musical segments are tiresome. Why we needed “Hallelujah”—not another Leponard Cohen cover—or a fart orchestra, I’m not sure. OK, the fart orchestra seems aesthetically relevant, but it still takes far too much time away from the film’s voice-acting gifts in Middleditch and Hart.
The duo have ample opportunity to sell ridiculous lines, break the fourth wall and generally have a ball without getting bogged down or restrained by Dreamworks’ typical reference-heavy humor. It may be in the gutter, but Captain Underpants is as buoyant a film as the studio has made in years. However, some gambles fail to pay off as Krupp and the boys meet/create their first supervillain in substitute teacher and former mad scientist Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll). While most actors may balk seeing their name in a post-Poopypants parenthetical, Kroll takes perverse pride in crafting a wonderfully off-kilter maniac. The gambles have nothing to do with his laughter-eradicating plot, but that of the adult characters.
Harold and George’s friendship is a big component of the film, often so thoroughly explored by director David Soren that it creeps into heavy-handedness even for a kid’s movie. But what this sets up, aside from the power of friendship winning out the day (as one might expect), is an inconsistent contrast with the film’s isolated adults. Krupp is friendless and dour, and an exploration of his Spartan bachelor pad is a depressing tangent in a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with that kind of seriousness. The same sort of tonal imbalance occurs when broaching the topic of Poopypants’ villainy. He’s been mocked because of his name in the past and is bullied into supervillainy by the film’s heroes. A throwaway line about not taking oneself too seriously seems inadequate in a film that skewers its main bully (Krupp) so harshly.
These tonal quibbles hinder the film jarringly because the rest is so joyfully goofy and full of unabashed giggles at all things toilet-y. Captain Underpants’ plethora of animation styles (including a wonderful sock puppet sequence) separates the film into imaginative sublayers, keeping it from feeling like the one-joke wonder that it often edges towards. Fans of the book will love the adaptation’s loyalty and specific references, while those unversed in Underpants lore will find themselves admitting (reluctantly, I’m sure) that they had a good time.
Director: David Soren
Writer: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll
Release Date: June 2, 2017