By: Will Ashton (Two Beers) –
I’ve waited my whole life for a Captain Underpants movie. I spent many days of my youth imagining what the series would be like on the big screen. Dav Pilkey’s deliriously immature children’s novel series is rambunctious, ridiculous, and really, really funny in its bathroom humor follies, with enough imagination, innovation, and heart to excuse its, shall we say, less-than-school-friendly material. Intentionally crude, both in terms of its child-like animation style and its gleefully juvenile storylines, but filled to the (toilet) brim with zeal and the right amount of silliness, it became a worldwide phenomenon for a reason. The books aren’t high art, by any stretch of the imagination, but they deserve the same amount of praise.
That’s why I waited with nervous anticipation for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Coming out nearly 20 years after the first book, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, hit bookshelves, DreamWorks Animation isn’t exactly striking while the iron is hot on Pilkey’s popular/controversial graphic novel, yet the book franchise has earned such a protracted legacy, they’re still arguably nearly as beloved now as they were in my childhood. That’s simply a testament to the universal appeal of Pilkey’s novels, selling more than 70 million books worldwide in over 20 languages (I remember my weird uncle once got me a copy of the Spanish edition, for whatever reason, one early ’00s Christmas). Captain Underpants isn’t just adolescent nonsense; they’re fantastically energized, creatively infused, and genuinely inspiring children’s books that are clogged with more wit and heart than you’d ever expect — which is why it’s easy to imagine all the different ways Hollywood could screw it up with their inevitable film adaptation.
Pilkey’s influence was key to Captain Underpants‘ appeal. With the author largely absent here (though he is credited as an executive producer), it was hard to infer how successfully director David Soren (Turbo) and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Storks, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) could translate the ingenuity and, dare I say it, the integrity of the original books. But I worried for no good reason. Capturing all the fun, playfulness, zaniness, and warmth of Pilkey’s source material, without alienating those unfamiliar with the books or any discerning adults who might find this family movie objectionable, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a legitimately rousing, captivatingly active, continuously funny, and contagiously invigorating delight from start-to-finish. Respecting and appreciating Pilkey’s original work, while modernizing it just enough to make it approachable and accessible for today’s audiences, it’s overflowing with sincerity, style, weirdness, and wild debauchery. It might honestly be the best animated movie I’ve seen so far in 2017, and it’s possibly the best comedy I’ve seen this year too. I can’t begin to tell you how happy the kid in me is right now; Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is exactly what he wanted.
From the overactive imaginations of George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie follows these two dexterous fourth-grade prankers (and next-door neighbors) who want nothing more than to spend their days writing and drawing their handmade comic books. Their most famous creation is, of course, Captain Underpants, a superhero known for only wearing a red cape and his tighty whiteys, with an origin story that’s not too dissimilar to the one shared by a certain alien from Krypton. Selling to their fellow students under their own homemade brand, Treehouse Comix Inc., their comics are just as adored as their pranks, which they inflict on their cruel teachers. Of course, such mischievous antics (which involves springboards and sometimes tigers) make them the bane of Principal Krupp’s (Ed Helms) horrible, lonely, solemn, wretched existence.
A pear-faced, stone-cold growler with an eternal frown and a horrendously unconvincing mop of a toupee, Principal Krupp has made it his mission in life to bring down George and Harold no matter what it takes. And when he catches George and Harold’s misdoings upon tampering with humorless brainiac Melvin Sneedly’s (Jordan Peele) latest invention, the Turbo Toilet 2000, during a recent science convention, Principal Krupp threatens to ruin their friendship forever by *gasp* putting them in separate classrooms. Fearing the absolute worse, George and Harold devise a plan to stay together, and in the process of doing so, they stumble upon a 3D Hypno Ring, which they pulled out of a cereal box, that hypnotizes their principal into doing their goofy bidding. In the midst of their adolescent deeds, George and Harold come up with the perfect plan: to turn their stern principal into none other than Captain Underpants, their bald, always smiling (if not always clothed), foolishly helpful comic book creation. Sure enough, with a snap of their fingers, Krupp is now Captain Underpants, and with that comes a whole lot of unclothed trouble.
Meanwhile, the nefarious Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) hatches an awful scheme to rid the world of laughter forever. Though Captain Underpants doesn’t have any superpowers (or any powers whatsoever), the not-so-super hero will help George and Harold take down Professor Poopypants before it’s all too late.
What makes Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie such a triumph is that it captures a child’s sense of humor and imagination far better, richer, and (thankfully) funnier than most family animated movies. It’s to the film’s ultimate benefit that, unlike the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, Soren and Stoller recognize that the property isn’t merely rampant potty humor; rather, it’s an icky, gross-out platform for celebrating the joys and wonders of growing up with a vivid, overactive imagination. Pilkey’s books tapped into a child’s wonderment of limitless boundaries and dreamy-eyed belief in the most ridiculous of ideas by approaching it on their own level, with the kind of jokes they’d squeal over as their minds went wild. The movie does the exact same thing. It takes these fantastically unrefined gags and turns them into something freshly poppy, heartily absurd, and, in its own sort of unconventional way, oddly beautiful.
Even with its meta humor and its more adult-friendly mindset, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie — first and foremost — is all for the kids. They’ll be positively enraptured by its nonsensical silliness. It’s dopey and unsophisticated, but it’s also simple and entirely in its own ludicrous little orbit. It’s all completely character-focused too, which gives weight to these (pretty clever) lowbrow jokes. It’s the kind of film that spins copious jokes at the expense of a planet named Uranus, yet it still finds boisterous and bubbly ways to keep ramping up the goofiness and the giddiness without losing your attention or patience. It’s miraculous. It’s a madhouse of sheer foolishness, and I simply couldn’t be more tickled.
And though Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is the cheapest DreamWorks Animation production by a healthy margin, the animation is just tremendous. Much like The Peanuts Movie back in 2015, Soren’s latest draws inspiration purely from Pilkey’s illustrations and that adds to the joy of it all. Despite its 3D computer source, the design is impeccable in capturing Pilkey’s signature hand-drawn style, which helps make this newest movie the most cartoonish DreamWorks Animation release by a long mile. I mean that in the absolute best way possible. I hope DreamWorks Animation makes more movies this silly in the future. Unlike The Boss Baby, Captain Underpants earns its goofiness while never making it tiring.
My biggest concern with Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie was its voice cast. In true DreamWorks Animation fashion, they favored high-profile celebrities over, say, unknown children or dependable voice actors. But perhaps I was simply drunk by its charm, but the voice acting largely works. Hart and Middleditch are distracting as fourth graders at first, but once you loosen up to the film’s string of oddities, the fact that two grown men are voicing these pre-pubescent children isn’t all that strange. Similarly, Helms is surprisingly quite good as Principal Krupp/Captain Underpants, providing a versatile and heartfelt performance that really helps radiate the character’s blind-hearted descents into adventure and peril. Meanwhile, Peele is unrecognizable in his supporting turn, while Kroll is clearly having a ball playing up the German looney with the most unfortunate name in science history. The reliable cast’s nimble, energetic enthusiasm adds to the film’s loose charms, which helps capture its wild-and-free spirit.
Similarly, Captain Underpants‘ joke-every-30-seconds approach might not swing to everyone’s fancy, and there are certainly more-than-a-few gags that refuse to land. But with so many jokes flung at the screen, it’s safe to say that nearly 75 percent of the jokes launched are at least fairly amusing, and those are certainly better odds than you’re going to find in most comedies seen this year, animated or otherwise. It’s on par with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when it comes to floating above middling expectations.
I’ll try to keep it brief: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is an absolute blast. Whether you’re a child, a child-at-heart, a major fan of the books, completely cold on the series, or a shrewd, humorless adult, there’s a good chance you’ll find something that’ll leave you in stitches. This durable, buoyant franchise starter is one of the freshest and funniest movies you’ll see in the theaters this year. Tra-la-la!
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time we see one of George and Harold’s comics.
Take a Drink: every time you see something you recognize from the books.
Take a Drink: every time it breaks away from 3D animation.
Take a Drink: every time Captain Underpants yells “Tra-la-la!”
Take a Drink: every time Professor Poopypants tells someone to quit laughing.
Do a Shot: during Professor Poopypants’ backstory.