It’s the first epic movie, bro.
In all seriousness, it’s a feature-length adaptation of the immensely popular children’s books of the same name by Dav Pilkey. It’s also what constitutes a pleasant surprise around these parts, as I entered this movie fully expecting to despise every second of it and ended up having a grand old time.
What’s it about?
Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch play George and Harold, a pair of elementary school pranksters who write and draw a comic-book series about a superhero called Captain Underpants. Through a thoroughly bizarre sequence of events involving a magic ring from a cereal box, the two manage to hypnotize their absurdly strict and uptight principle, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into becoming a real-life version of their creation.
And it’s just as well, because almost immediately after George and Harold create their very own pet superhero – sporting a cape and a pair of tighty-whiteys, but no actual superpowers – a pint-sized, German-accented mad scientist (Nick Kroll) turns up as the school’s new teacher.
Wait… he doesn’t have any superpowers?
Not for most of the movie, anyway. He’s mostly a blundering, slapstick joke at the expense of traditional superheroes. Harold and George quite astutely point out that most of them look like they’re wearing their underwear anyway, so Captain Underpants is literally just wearing his underwear.
He also announces his presence with a lilting “tra-la-laaa” that I found quite delightful.
This sounds awful.
I’m well-aware. And that’s before you discover that the villain’s super-weapon is a giant, walking toilet that spews the radioactive cafeteria leftovers, and that his dastardly plan is to nuke every living person’s sense of humour so that they can no longer laugh at his name, which is, I shit you not, Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esquire.
You must be fucking joking.
I’m not. But the movie’s strength is that it recognises how thoroughly juvenile and ridiculous this is, and just doesn’t give a single discount shit either way. It revels in the silliness to such an extent that it transforms moments that should be insufferable into sublime sight gags, flights of animated fancy, and low-brow lines that pluck the lowest of all fruits – toilet humour, the humiliation of adults in positions of authority, and, of course, funny voices – and flings them straight at the audience with relentless enthusiasm.
So… It’s good?
It’s a riot. It undeniably has a bunch of typical DreamWorks tics that are noticeable and tiresome because the studio has been stuffing their movies full of them for over a decade, including the deployment of workhorse pop songs to drum up humour and/or sentiment despite the scenes probably playing fine without them. It’s rushed, too, a little scattershot, a bit jumbled, and your enjoyment of it is going to be predicated on whether or not you can still get in touch with the part of you that inwardly giggles at names like Professor Poopypants. But if you can, Captain Underpants is a movie that feels specifically designed to remind you what it felt like to be a child, and how refreshing it can be to pretend to be one again, even if it’s only for 90 minutes.
If you say so.
Look, I know it’s difficult to believe. Captain Underpants is hardly a beacon of sophistication, but beyond the film’s overall tone, there’s a real sense of craftsmanship here, both in the performances and the visual touches. The obvious standout is Nick Kroll as Professor Poopypants himself, who delivers a wonderfully funny voice, but also exasperation, and a peevish, self-pitying quality that centres the character. The animators help. He has cloudy wings of white hair and a waddling walk; a tiny head teetering precariously on a fireplug body. A lot of the imagery is like that – a preservation of Pilkey’s exuberant drawing style that revels in light and shade, but abandons realistic proportion and the laws of physics. Captain Underpants’s charmless alter-ego, Mr. Krupp, has a spidery toupee that leaps into the air when he exerts himself, and plops back down onto his ovoid head, slightly askew.
The animation is colourful and detailed, but it frequently peels away to a stylistically-distinct interlude: black-and-white line drawing, sock puppetry, a flip-book action scene. It’s at its best when it cuts loose, delivering fantasy sequences of escalating complexity and absurdity, such as when Harold and George are separated in class, and imagine the space between them as a sea of stars that gradually morphs into a galaxy.
Doesn’t it have anything to say about kids? About growing up, maybe?
Nope, not really, and it’s all the better for it. Sure, there’s some tokenistic acknowledgement of the power of friendship and imagination, of the importance of recognising that some people are lonely and desperate for some form of connection (mostly exemplified through Jordan Peele’s power-worshipping dorky snitch, Melvin). But generally, this isn’t a movie with lessons about life or anything else. It’s a tall-tale aimed at kids, but not at bettering their lives; it wants them to laugh until they wet themselves and then laugh at them wetting themselves. It’s just that kind of movie.
Is that a good thing?
I wouldn’t want every movie to play like this one, but it seriously works here. And whatever you think of the humour, you have to admire director and co-writer David Soren’s commitment to the essential spirit of the source material; the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck nerve of bringing this property to a big-screen almost completely unaltered. It’s a celebration of puerility and childishness that accidentally captures something profound about how important it is to sometimes laugh at an underwear joke.
Wholeheartedly. If this is only the first epic movie, I can’t wait for the second.
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