Director: David Soren
Writer: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Ed Helms
Genre: Superhero Comedy
I was absolutely stunned when I first caught wind of the teaser for this film. Captain Underpants was one of those odd titles I saw on the shelves that I’d look at with beleaguered amusement and not much else. Obviously, someone got something out of that work that I completely missed. That’s not too surprising, and neither is the film for the most part.
Violence: Cartoon slapstick abounds through the film without any life-threatening situations.
Language/crude humor: Most humor is of the five-year-old potty humor sort. Anything pertaining to poop, underwear, toilets, and gross lunch food is referenced to comical effect.
Sexual content: None.
Drug/alcohol use: None.
Spiritual content: None.
Other negative themes: Depictions of children’s disruptive hooliganism.
Positive Content: George and Harold do come to terms with the weight of the power they now wield and try what they can to tear themselves away from their own ambitions to take responsibility for it.
A famous satirical line was made about laws in comparison to sausages that could also be made about children: It’s best not to see them being made (That’s not what I meant. Stop snickering). All the particular interests, fantasies, and practices of childhood are often ones that many past such ages would rather not revisit for fear of personal embarrassment. While in that state, however, such trepidations are largely nonexistent. Thus, is it not uncommon for children to be very upfront about their wants and desires, likes and dislikes, and personal ambitions without any regard for how outlandish or impractical, or internally inconsistent they are? Irony largely seems to be an ancillary gift of maturity.
Of course, the transitory phase of childhood can also be the one of greatest personal serenity and enjoyment–at least it is for the individual child in question. The liberty of both thought and action that is often associated with that stage lends itself handsomely to creativity. What comes of such creativity may not be the most refined or presentable, but it is genuine and sincere. The incorrect maneuver is to leave the creative endeavor at that highly developmental and incomplete phase where there is little in the way of structure to all the raw indulgent material. Doing so is akin to setting up a frosting without any cake. It may be sweet, but it’s weak in structural integrity, and it can leave you sick.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is the latest offering from DreamWorks Animation with a subtitle that feels like more of a threat than anything. Based on a series of children’s books by Dav Pilkey, the film can be seen as almost the entire psyche of the five-year-old hooligan being incarnated into a feature-length film. George Beard (Kevin Hart) and his best friend Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are highly imaginative and talented troublemakers who spend their days “making each other laugh.” This usually takes the form of making silly comics and pulling dastardly pranks at school, but one day their prank goes too far when they sabotage a prototype for a new bathroom fixture named the Turbo Toilet 2000 (a call out to the book series’ eleventh installment from what I gather). The boys are brought before their cantankerous curmudgeon of a principal, Benjamin “Benny” Krupp (Ed Helms), who is just about at his wit’s end with the boys’ shenanigans. He chooses to resolve this issue by assigning George and Harold to separate classrooms, which, in the mind of two best friends, is basically the end of the world.
To emphasize that this film has the child as its sole target audience, the adult characters only seem to act in exaggerated modes that reflect how many average imaginative children see adult behavior. Principal Krupp is seen cackling maniacally as he promises to destroy the boys’ friendship. I’m sure in the mind of the child who is the subject of such a decision, seeing the decree as a diabolical plot to ruin something precious to them is a stroke of subjective vindication, but this drives a wedge in the accessibility of the story.
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said something to the effect that children stories that are only good for children are bad children’s stories. Great stories last, whether they are for children or not. When the stamp of “Kids Only” is marked onto any work, it is inescapably also marked with an expiration date. One of the best things about kids is also one of the worst things: they grow up. What they keep with them through the years is what is of great value to them.
Whatever fulfillment Captain Underpants seems to bring is largely only valuable to the most unsophisticated of youngsters (and substance abusing college students) to whom armpit music is akin to a Baroque Period symphony in terms of high art. It also serves to give wish fulfillment to certain children who feel oppressed by their superiors. To avert the threat of being separated by Principal Krupp, George, in an act of desperation, hypnotizes Krupp (with a cereal box toy, no less) into acting like whatever he and Harold command him to be. After a few fun-filled bouts of animal pantomime, they come to realize that Krupp bears a striking resemblance to their make-believe superhero character Captain Underpants without his toupee. Once two and two are put together, their bitter old principal is hypnotically made into a kindhearted and energetic superhero who treats the two boys as his sidekicks. This does resonate with a desire from many children to exact control on their superiors so as to avoid any unwanted responsibilities or for vengeful purposes. Such a desire is unhealthy to entertain, even in the context of fiction, but thankfully, it’s not all bad.
In the act of turning Mr. Krupp into a superhero figure, George and Harold take a semblance of responsibility for their actions, doing what they can to ensure that Krupp can still outwardly function as a principal while keeping him from signing the order to have them separated. What plays out is a likeable bout of situation comedy that also informs the boys that their unlikeable principal still has a soul and a life of his own to be respected and acknowledged. A subplot involves Mr. Krupp’s unrequited romance encounter with the shy lunch lady Edith (Kristen Schaal), which further humanizes him.
Of course, no superhero is complete without a villain. Here, oddly, is where the film’s finest moments are delivered. I personally yearn for the day when voice actors for animation are being recognized by the Academy. When that day arrives, let’s not neglect to keep Nick Kroll in mind for his performance as Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants. No, really. Prof. P is a man of constant acrimony who comes to George and Harold’s school under the guise of an elementary science teacher.
Sporting a German accent, puffy wings of hair on the sides of his nut-shaped bespectacled head, and the physique of a spark plug (with the accompanying Napoleonic complex), he plans to rid the world of all laughter, just to ensure that no one will ever laugh at his outrageous concatenation of a name again. His dastardly plot involves targeting the part of the brain that controls laughter and dulling it so as to turn the mass of the students at the school into humorless, catatonic cyphers. Kroll delivers his lines with a self-deprecating strain of exasperation that adds surprising depth to an otherwise straightforward archetype. You can practically feel for the man who’s had to suffer all these years with such a dreadful moniker.
With that said, I was left more concerned and contemplative than entertained from this. Perhaps I’m just not the right age bracket for this kind of story. And maybe that’s part of the problem. Those who ARE the right age bracket at present won’t be so for long. When they do eventually grow older and choose to revisit the tales of their youth, will they find in Captain Underpants another and more profound angle to it that they could not have recognized on their first viewing? When I was a child, I loved reading Calvin & Hobbes as it was in many ways a manifestation of my own boyhood fantasies brought to life on the page. Now that I am nearly thirty, I love reading Bill Watterson’s seminal work all the more not only for the former reason, but also because I can now recognize and appreciate it as a quietly brilliant meditative reflection on the very subject of boyhood itself.
Will Captain Underpants (either the 12-volume book series or this film) offer a similar recurring gift to its readers as they age? Maybe. I’ve only browsed through the books, and from what I gather from other reviews, one’s enjoyment of the film will largely be proportionate to how much one enjoys the books. That is certainly a fact worthy of praise. Director David Soren and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller clearly have a sincere affinity for the source material. The visual identity of the film does translate to CGI the lackadaisically crude aesthetic of the books with noteworthy aplomb, though it’s nowhere in the ballpark of the outstanding technical achievement that was Blue Sky’s Peanuts Movie from a while back. Whether or not that aesthetic will stand the test of time as the work of Schulz has is a question that only my betters can answer with the gifts of time and hindsight as their aid.
+ Harmlessly fun + Clever visual quirks and style + Great voice performances
- Crude - Hollow - Slapdash plot - Promise (read: Threat) of sequels
The Bottom Line
Your mileage may vary. Child accompaniment may increase likelihood of enjoyment.