DreamWorks Animation’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is almost perfectly critic-proof for a number of reasons, the biggest being that you can’t say that this movie is stupendously juvenile, extraordinarily silly, and resolutely lowbrow in its sense of humor without sounding like you’re criticizing it for those things. I genuinely mean all of those as compliments, especially since it’s clear that this is exactly what the movie (and the original books by Dav Pilkey) aspires to. This is a movie that is targeted with laser-like focus on what the average 4-8 year old will find hilariously funny, and like the books, I am truly impressed at the fine balancing act that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie performs in relying on the lowest of lowbrow humor without ever straying into excessive gross-out or mean-spirited territory.
George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are first-graders and best friends who spend as much time as possible in their treehouse creating comic books around Captain Underpants, their co-created superhero who battles evil in his tighty-whities and a cape. However, their nemesis is the gratuitously mean Principal Krupp (Ed Helms), who is prone to declaring that there’s no room for any creativity in school and impressively determined to eradicate any sense of fun in the halls of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School. When George and Harold are finally caught in one of their elaborate pranks, they end up hypnotizing Principal Krupp into thinking he is Captain Underpants to keep from getting separated at school. Meanwhile, the school’s new science teacher Professor P is clearly up to no good, and once he discovers the class nerd Melvin’s utter absence of a sense of humor, it’s up to George, Harold, and Captain Underpants to save the world from a fate worse than death. Or at least one that would be really really boring.
Captain Underpants continues to top banned book lists around the world, and if you think that’s a valid state of affairs, then this movie is really, really not going to be for you. The movie (directed by DreamWorks veteran David Soren) is driven by the same anti-authoritarian streak and gently subversive sense of humor as the books, and definitely draws the same simple pleasures out of whoopee cushions, toilets, underwear references, terrible puns, the pronunciation of the seventh planet in the Solar System, and a well-placed goofball non sequitur. It does not aspire to be anything more than a humorous diversion for 90-minutes and will go to great lengths to make sure the kids stay laughing throughout (and is quite successful at this, judging by the reactions of the kids at the press screening I attended). Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay culls material from several of the Captain Underpants books to stretch things to feature length, and thankfully does not overstay its welcome. It even adds in a few small concessions to kinder sensibilities, as the kids end up feeling some sympathy for Principal Krupp and genuinely apologize for something when they realize that one of their pranks went too far into something hurtful. But these are tiny bits wrapped in pretty organically as something of a salve for parents and Hollywood sensibilities.
The movie doesn’t really aspire to any great animation breakthroughs, either. The CGI animation is solid, nicely converting Dav Pilkey’s drawings into 3-D, but it’s not going to impress the way many of DreamWorks Animation’s bigger-budget movies do. However, the simpler animation is an appropriate way to mimic Dav Pilkey’s drawing style in the Captain Underpants books (though I’m also fairly certain that the surprisingly low budget of the movie was a not-unwelcome side effect). I was genuinely impressed at the movie’s dedication to mixed media, however, as the CGI is supplemented by several hand-drawn animated segments, and even one sequence done with sock puppets (which is one of the funnier sections of the movie). The most impressive animation in the movie may be the least technical, as the movie figured out a way to incorporate the books’ “Flip-O-Rama” sections, where young readers fool with 2-page flip-book sections to create proto-animations of their own. The voice actors are all having a grand time, with Ed Helms probably getting to have the most fun as both the uptight Principal Krupp and the exuberant Captain Underpants. Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch neatly avoid sounding like adults acting like kids (which is a credit to the writing and their performances).
In the end, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie reminds me most of the comedy classic Airplane!. Both are impressive for their determination to keep the jokes coming at a steady clip, and for their fearlessness in the way they make sure they don’t make the jokes too classy. The jokes in both movies hit a lot more often than they don’t. I am positive that there are going to be grown-ups who will hate this movie for all the same reasons that I like it, with the irony that we will probably be using the exact same justifications for our opinions.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is in theaters now.