Directed by: David Soren
Written by: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Much like many kids who went to grade school back in the early 2000’s, I really enjoyed reading Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, although I admit I stopped at about the 7th book in the series. The series, which follows the adventures of two comic book/prank-obsessed 4th graders and their principal who they transform into a goofy superhero, has enjoyed considerable popularity during its run, having recently concluded the series only 2 years ago. And now, on the 20th anniversary of the series debut, Dreamworks Studios presents us with a feature film adaptation, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.
George Beard and Harold Hutchens are two 4th-graders at Jerome Horowitz Elementary School who spend most of their free time creating comics and pulling pranks on their teachers in an attempt to brighten up the miserable lives of their classmates. This is mainly due to the eternally bitter Principal Krupp needing to assert his authority everywhere. After one particularly nasty prank, Krupp threatens to place the two in separate classes, but George uses a hypnotic toy ring to wiggle out of it and take advantage of the situation to turn Principal Krupp into the hero of George and Harold’s flagship comic series: Captain Underpants. With the principal now in the duo’s control, they must now try to manage the situation as best they can while dealing with the arrival of a suspiciously evil new science teacher at their school.
Something that struck me right away about the movie is the overall plot and arrangement of elements. Instead of directly adapting the plot of any single entry of the books, the film’s story is a pastiche of elements from within the first four entries of the series. The main plot tell of Captain Underpants’ origins as portrayed in the very first book and utilizes the antagonist of book 4, the diabolical Professor Poopypants, although his evil plans are considerably different from his original incarnation. In addition, the Turbo Toilet 2000 factors into the plot (this time an invention by school snitch Melvin Sneedly), and there’s nods to other key moments from the series, including a humorous passing nod to the fifth entry.
The best thing to be said about the film is how enthusiastically and faithfully it captures the experience of the Captain Underpants series. To start, the animation and art is appealing to look at as, despite the usage of traditional CG, the color palette and character designs are highly stylized to accurately reflect the charming simplicity of creator Dav Pilkey’s art style. The simple designs and animation allow for a great deal of expressiveness to match the over-the-top nature of everything, especially during some of the more chaotic comedic set pieces. The film also has a handful of digressions that explore other types of animation, including a particularly hilarious sequence with sock puppets and some 2D bits to illustrate George and Harold’s comics.
The film is quite entertaining and funny most of the time, although your mileage will vary depending on your tolerance for joke-a-minute comedies and heavy amounts of literal toilet humor. At its best, the film quite successfully captures the experience of reading any of the books, with George and Harold’s friends-for-life dynamic leading to all kinds of hectic shenanigans, the social disturbances caused by Captain Underpants’ misguided attempts to be a real hero, and even the offbeat meta-humor that works itself in much of the time. In what is probably the funniest moment of the film, one of the major action sequences switches from exciting action to a version of the famous “Flip-o-rama” segments from the books. The banter between George and Harold is at its peak here as they riff on both the battle and weird artistic quirks, and the scene even goes as far as to have one of them tear a page of the comic, which… certainly brought back a lot of embarrassing memories from my grade school days. In addition, Ed Helms as both Principal Krupp and Captain Underpants is a ton of fun in the role, switching effortlessly between aggressive killjoy and overly enthusiastic savior at the snap of a finger.
While the movie is quite a lot of fun, much like a lot of other kid-friendly animated comedies nowadays, it has a tendency to get bogged down by the rapid-fire nature of the joke writing. The jokes work more often than not, especially a lot of the slapstick and humorous sight gags, but there’s a few comedic set pieces that feel overloaded. Oddly enough, the two biggest sequences in this regard both involve playing around with Krupp transforming between his regular/Captain Underpants personas. The scenes in question just go on and on and on with absolutely no breathing room, and it kind of strains on your patience after a while. The writing could have benefited from just a bit of trimming down on such sequences so that the good jokes could be that much stronger and effective.
Overall, Captain Underpants is an entertaining family film and a fun nostalgia trip for anyone raised on Dav Pilkey’s books. The characters are a lot of fun, the story is appropriately nutty, and it has some of the most distinct and stylized CG of any animated film to date. A bit of restraint in some of the comedy would have helped make things a little stronger, but as it currently stands, it’s a fun ride that’s worth a look if you’re curious.
Verdict: Catch a matinee. Preferably fully clothed and not in your underwear. TRA-LA-LAAAA!!!