The makers of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie are obviously not aiming for the arthouse or independent crowds. In fact, they’re running as far away from them as possible. But this Dreamworks film based on Dav Pilkey’s book series is a lot wittier and imaginative than you’d think, considering its premise.
Even though the humor is lowbrow and kid-friendly, it’s delivered with a good sense of timing and doesn’t feel condescending. One factor that helps is how the film knows it’s lowbrow and celebrates and embraces that fact, instead of shying away from it.
In the canon, Captain Underpants is the brainchild of George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), fourth grade best friends and treehouse partners in both pranks and comic book making. They take their roles as the class clowns of their elementary school very seriously, understandable given their principal is the grumpy and repressive Benjamin Krump (Ed Helms). In the face of such tyranny, it’s their duty to spread laughs and smiles throughout the hallways. At least that’s the impression George’s dramatic speeches gave me.
The two boys aren’t thrilled by being forced to attend their boring science fair, and when they prank the invention of principal’s pet Melvin Sneedly (Jordan Peele), Krump reaches his breaking point and signs paperwork to put the boys in separate classes. But this is the kind of anarchic cartoon universe where George can try his seemingly ridiculous plan of hypnotizing Krump with a 3D Hypno-Ring he found in his cereal, and it can actually work.
To prevent their split, Harold and George convince him he’s their comic book creation, and he transforms into the bumbling crimefighter whenever they snap their fingers. As long as they can keep him away from the water splashes that change him back into Krump, it’s all good, right?
Of course, they can’t keep up the ruse forever, and Underpants might be a good superhero but he’s not much for running a school competently. With his protruding white hair, thick accent and short stature, I wouldn’t be surprised if the artists noted Mega Man’s Dr. Wily as an influence for the design of Professor P, a mad scientist who is accidentally hired and recruits Melvin for his plan to force people to stop laughing at his embarrassing real name.
George and Harold’s genuinely sweet friendship is a major factor that holds the plot together, even with all the chaos occurring. At points, some of the gags can get too rapid-fire and overwhelming, but most of them are pretty clever and strive to be original. When the kids are inside their treehouse pondering a future apart, the style switches to sock puppets, and also to 2D animation during the comic panel sequences, charmingly rendered like a child’s comic scribbles.
The tone stays consistently lighthearted, but it’s directed well enough to where you’ll find yourself caring about their dilemma and desire to not be separated. These kids are proud pranksters, but they’re never malicious or cruel. Their major issue with Krupp is how grouchy and intolerant of fun and laughter he is. As they grow closer to their principal-turned-superhero and discover exactly why he’s so mean all the time, they do manage to develop as characters.
Captain Underpants recruits some interesting major names. I don’t think anyone else outside of Weird Al Yankovic could have performed this character’s theme song, he’s just such a perfect fit. Going in I’ll admit I had some reservations because of the celebrity voice actors playing children, and you can tell where they’re being pitched higher. But Middleditch and Hart’s performances do convey good childlike exuberance, Hart in particular.
Helms’s tra-la-la battle cry is never not funny- he’s entertainingly dopey as the title hero, who the two boys actually have to play parent for throughout the story. Jordan Peele is appropriately nasally and weasel-like as Melvin, and Nick Kroll is hilarious at points, coming off what I thought was a fun performance as Gunter the pig in Sing. His mad professor is a perfect comedy heel- someone who desperately wants to be taken seriously but never will be.
The Dreamworks team absolutely nail Pilkey’s art direction from the books. As much as I love Disney and Pixar’s visual styles, it’s refreshing to see different varieties of character models in animated kids’ films. Both the kids and adults have equal amounts of gumdrop-like bounce and life to them. Combined with the bright color scheme, the film has a strong “Saturday morning cartoon” aura (to the point where George and Harold spontaneously break out in song to express as such), or shades of a well-done Nicktoon.
Nicholas Stoller’s script and David Soren’s direction for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie treats the source material here with respect without forgetting to have fun with it. There’s more heart among the characters than you’d expect, and when the humor does start skewing more towards adults and George and Harold bust down the fourth wall, the jokes are actually smart and not just cheap references.
Fans of the CU series and families will definitely be satisfied with this film, but I would recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a genuinely funny, good-natured movie that encourages kids to be creative and not take themselves too seriously.