CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE
Director: David Soren
Cast: The voices of Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal
MPAA Rating: (for mild rude humor throughout)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 6/2/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 1, 2017
The screenplay for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie tries to get ahead of the movie's potential critics by having a villain who despises low-brow humor. Such jokes are the bane of the villain's existence, given that his surname is a prime example of such humor and that his full name is almost ridiculously so. Such jokes are "the lowest form of humor," he laments, basically mirroring the sentiments one might expect from some parents and other critics about this material.
It's a smart bit of evasion, which partially goes against the movie's preemptive defense. The movie isn't just a string of jokes about bathroom humor and other such jokes. Well, technically, it is, but Nicholas Stoller's screenplay recognizes that fact, which means the movie can be—and is—smart about it.
After all, the story is about a couple of kids who think that an orchestra filled with musicians playing whoopee cushions, their armpits, and their upper and, for the song's final note, lower gastrointestinal tracts is the height of humor (The quotes from reviews of the performance are a nice touch). The movie taps into that mentality with surprising success. It's so absurd in its potty-based jokes that the story's final battle is between a superhero who flies around in his underwear and a giant, robotic toilet. Read that again, and just try to tell me that Stoller, adapting a series of novels by Dav Pilkey, either doesn't know his target audience or does genuinely believe that this is the pinnacle of humor.
It's silly, and silly can be good. It is here for a while, especially in the way the story moves about without any regard for any standard sort of plot structure. It moves from amusing observations about a tight-knit friendship and grade-school life to a wacky situational-comedy setup about a hypnotized principal without any warning, and that's well before the screenplay even thinks about introducing the story's antagonist.
The fact of structure later on, though, is what starts to undo the movie's juvenile but unexpected charm. Stoller may have beaten criticisms of the movie's attitude to the punch, but he didn't take into account the notion that, in nudging the conventions of superhero movies, the movie easily nudges itself into following those conventions a bit too much.
The friends at the heart of the story are George (voice of Kevin Hart) and Harold (voice of Thomas Middleditch), who laughed at the name of the seventh planet from the sun in kindergarten and have been inseparable ever since. In addition to arranging elaborate and sometimes dangerous pranks in school (The cartoonish style of the movie lessens the reality of, say, putting a tiger in a classroom), the duo is responsible for writing and drawing a series of comic books about a superhero of their own creation: Captain Underpants, who, as one would expect, fights crime in his underwear, while occasionally bellowing his trademark phrase ("Tra la la!").
The friends' antics have earned the ire of Mr. Krupp (voice of Ed Helms), the school's principal, whose obvious toupee rises and falls with oscillations of the fan in his office. After George and Harold's most recent stunt, involving an impromptu dance party at a mandatory science fair involving a smart toilet and plenty of toilet paper (Don't ask), Krupp has decided to separate the pair into different classrooms.
Moments before the principal is able to sign the transfer papers, George uses a hypnotization ring from a cereal box, putting Krupp under his control. To make the hardnosed principal more fun, the two decide to make him believe he is—you guessed it—Captain Underpants.
The central joke of the principal's transformation is that he, of course, possesses no superpowers but behaves as if he does. The shift in story focus is so sudden that it takes a bit to readjust to this new line of gags, and the readjustment period ends around the time that this particular series of jokes ends, with Krupp/Underpants "battling" an inflatable gorilla atop a skyscraper (The peril of the situation and the destruction caused by the boys in order to stop their victim's imminent death are, once again, downplayed by the movie's animation style, although with slightly less success in this instance). The other joke is that a splash of water returns Captain Underpants back to Krupp, which turns out to a gag in search of a purpose.
Just upon adjusting to this new plot, the movie upends it all again with the introduction of the school's new science teacher Mr. P (voice of Nick Kroll), whose last name and, most especially, his full name won't be revealed here, lest the movie's most outlandish examples of juvenile humor are ruined (Do not judge: I chuckled, especially at the full name). The teacher is a self-proclaimed "mad genius," determined to discover a way to stop children from laughing. George and Harold's humorless, sycophantic classmate Melvin (voice of Jordan Peele) is the key.
The movie's attitude is admirably immature, if only because its spirit is innocent. The jokes are of the hit-and-miss variety, which is to be expected, especially for anyone over the age of 10. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie comes quite close to working for what it is, until the third act takes the movie in a far-too familiar direction of superhero action.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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