I’ve spoken favorably about animated films that speak to the whole family and not just kids, that stimulate the imaginations of children rather than play down to them, that nurture the healthy development of young minds rather than deaden their sense of wonder. I regard such films highly. Nevertheless, I fear I’m misrepresenting myself. Don’t think for a second that I don’t also appreciate animated films that are made purely for entertainment – that are innocuous, uncomplicated, unedifying, and unremittingly silly. As important as I believe good family fare is, there’s nothing wrong with letting young brains go on autopilot every now and then.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a film that offers that kind of escapism. Against my better judgment, I appreciated the heedlessness with which director David Soren and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller approached the plot, that they embraced the innate goofiness of the material rather than try to tone it down. There I was, a thirty-three-year-old man sitting in a screening room actually laughing at over-the-top slapstick, mildly scatalogical, unashamedly self-referential gags aimed at audiences less than half my age. Maybe I’m just immature. Or maybe this film knows how to reawaken the kid that lies dormant in most of us adults. You be the judge.
Adapted from Dav Pilkey’s series of Captain Underpants children’s books – which, believe it or not, I became familiar with during my days as a college Creative Writing major – this 3D cartoon comedy centers on characters that are intentionally drawn broadly, lest they fail to engage younger audience members. At the heart of the story are elementary school best friends George Beard (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (voiced by Thomas Middleditch), known not only for their relatively harmless yet very frequent pranks but also for their self-published comic book series that follows the exploits of the dumb and reckless but well-intentioned Captain Underpants, a fat, bald superhero dressed in nothing but underwear and a cape.
George and Harold are the only two kids at this school whose sense of humor hasn’t been squelched by the very mean, easily irked Principal Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms). To prevent themselves from being separated into different classrooms – which, in their young minds, equates melodramatically to the forced termination of their friendship – George and Harold use a plastic ring to hypnotize Krupp into believing he’s Captain Underpants. A snap of their fingers will put him into the trance, while a splash of water will take him out of it. And so the boys will spend the rest of the film trying to manage their principal, who of course will have several zany misadventures.
Real trouble comes in the form of the school’s newest science teacher, the squat and very teutonic Professor P. (voiced by Nick Kroll). Let’s just say that his evil scheme to rid the world of laughter directly correlates to what his last initial stands for. He enlists the help of the school’s designated science nerd/teacher’s pet/tattle tale (voiced by Jordan Peele), whose brain lacks the area responsible for finding anything funny. All will lead to a final battle between a hypnotized Krupp and Professor P., who pilots a gigantic robot toilet. Don’t bother questioning this. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re too old for this movie, but it does mean you’ve lost your ability to be amused by childish things, a tragedy if ever there was one.
Aside from the more juvenile gags, including the final bars of “The 1812 Overture” being performed with whoopie cushions, I appreciated the ways George and Harold engage the audience – sometimes literally by pausing the movie and breaking the fourth wall, sometimes by offhanded comments to each other. I even appreciated the little throwaway gags, like the moment immediately after “The 1812 Overture” ends and a series of random review blurbs fill the screen, or when George’s attempts at reaching Professor P. results in the latter shouting, “Oh really, Oprah? Ees zat my problem?!” Believe me, I tried to resist Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. But sometimes, I’m very easily charmed.