- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Following on the heels of the financial success of this spring’s The Boss Baby, Dreamworks’ latest animated feature is Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Adapted from a popular series of kids’ books, Captain Underpants is very enjoyable feature full of laughs that could spawn a series of future films.
Fourth graders George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are two best friends who spend their time writing crazy comic books and pulling crazy pranks at school. George writes their stories and Harold animates them, with their favorite being their invented superhero Captain Underpants. Their pranks frequently bring them into conflict with the Principal Krupp (Ed Helms), a mean adult who looks to suck the joy out of everything, confiscating countless comics and toys from them over the years. When they are finally caught pulling a prank involving an invention by Melvin (Jordan Peele), their classmate who is a classic butt kisser to the faculty, Principal Krupp threatens to put them in separate classrooms, a punishment that shatters their world. In a desperate attempt to prevent this, George attempts to hypnotize Krupp with a 3D Hypno Ring he got out of a cereal box. Astonishingly, it works, and after having fun with making him act like a chicken and a monkey, they tell him to be Captain Undepants due to his striking resemblance sans his toupee. Assuming the identity of their comic book hero, Krupp is soon galavanting around their town pretending to be a superhero without powers just as mad scientist Professor P (Nick Kroll doing a German accent) arrives to take over as the new science teacher. Also, the P stands for Poopypants.
The humor here is definitely geared toward the 4th grade level of potty humor. George and Harold crack up laughing in a flashback when they learn that there is a planet called Uranus. The villain is name Professor Poopypants. The thing is, the jokes aren’t sophomoric, juvenile, or crass. Rather, it’s enjoyable because George and Harold find so much unabashed joy and laughter from these things that they find funny that it makes it relatable. It’s the kind of childish comedy that makes it easy to remember being a kid and hearing something funny for the first time and how entertaining and silly something like Uranus sounding like “Your anus” could be.
The other thing that really works for the film is that they make the stakes matter. Principal Krupp is an adult that seems to find pleasure and satisfaction in taking away anything that is fun. In the eyes of a 4th grader, teachers and principals can seem like they just hate fun. Also in the minds of 4th graders who are best friends, being put in separate classrooms can seem like the end of the world. From their limited perspective of the world, it’s a massive upheaval of the order of the universe. This film does a very effective conveying that sense of doom and the threat that it is.
Captain Underpants has some impressive animation. At times, there is some traditionally hand-drawn animation on top of the computer animation. There is also one interlude sequence involving sock puppets. This blending of styles gives the film a unique look all its own. Professor Poopypants also has a shrinking/enlarging ray gun that lets the film get creative with how the action of the third act plays out.
The voice acting is another highlight of the film. Ed Helms is a legitimate standout. His Captain Underpants voice is an amalgam of various classic superheroes and cartoons. Krupp is also an unwitting victim of this hypnosis, and comes out of it whenever he gets a splash of water to the face, making for some great verbal acrobatics for Helms where he’s jumping between identities from Krupp to Underpants and back and forth again and again. One moment he’s belting out Captain Underpants’ catchphrase of singing “Tra-la-laaaaaa!” and the next second he is yelling at Harold and George or wondering where the rest of his clothes are. Kroll is also a delight as the humorless Poopypants who hates his last name and is sick and tired of people laughing at it. The German accent is just icing on the cake. Hart and Middleditch as George and Harold definitely capture the spirit of boys in the 4th grade. Kristen Schaal also pops up as Edith the lunch lady who like likes Krupp.
Captain Underpants is the kind of animated film that is enjoyable for kids and adults alike. There’s a lot of talent and creativity on display here, only some of which I have touched on. Kids will enjoy the toilet humor (literally, there is a giant toilet that terrorizes the school) and it invites adults to have a childlike enjoyment of the film too. It’s infectious humor. Often, people will say that they just want to be able to shut their brain off when they watch a movie. That’s fine, but often that’s used as an excuse for tolerating subpar movies. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is exactly the kind of film that someone can turn their brain off and actually be entertained by in the purest sense.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars