Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
50% Hero. 100% Cotton.
I’m not a big fan of DreamWorks Animation. There, I’ve said it. Look, there are definitely exceptions — i.e. Shrek (2001), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Puss in Boots (2011) and Kung Fu Panda (2008), well, at least in their original outings. But for every one of these winners, there seems to be a bunch of forgettable duds — think the Madagascar series (2005 – 2012), Over the Hedge (2006) and Turbo (2013). I suppose every studio has their preferred narrative and visual style and DreamWorks usually doesn’t appeal to me.
Enter Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017). It took me a bit of rummaging to confirm that this was indeed from the house that Shrek really built and not from one of its chief rivals — namely Blue Sky Studios, who, a couple of years ago, brought us The Peanuts Movie (2015), which this new feature appeared visually similar to. It also looked to be pure straight-up fun, which I’m delighted to say it delivers in fast, sugary glee.
Based on the immensely popular series of kids’ books by Dav Pilkey, the plot centers on two of the bestest buds to have ever attended elementary school, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch). When they aren’t pranking the teachers at Jerome Horwitz Elementary School, the fourth-graders spend their time making comic books under the banner of Tree House Comix Inc. Their flagship creation is a superhero named Captain Underpants, who is basically an overgrown baby with super human powers, a shinny headed do-gooder who only wears his ‘tighty-whities’ and a red cape whilst fighting crime and saving the day.
When their mean Principal, Benjamin Krupp (voiced by a perfectly cast Ed Helms), gets damning evidence of the boys’ most recent prank — courtesy of a humorless, tech-savvy dibber-dobber named Melvin Sneedly (Jordan Peele) — he threatens to separate the pair for good, in an effort to annihilate their schoolyard friendship. In desperation, George uses a ‘3D Hypno Ring’ he found inside a cereal box to try and hypnotize Krupp. After realizing that the doohickey somehow worked, the lads command Krupp to assume the identity of Captain Underpants, quickly discovering they can’t quite keep the loony hero under control.
Just as the boys manage to find a fitting middle ground for the hypnotized Krupp, balancing between the nice-guy mode of Underpants and the bad-guy principal act, a real baddie emerges in the form of a new teacher, the German-accented Professor P. (a scene-stealing Nick Knoll) — whose full name sounds like it’s been made up by a potty mouth five-year-old and whose scheme involves, quite literally, flushing the students’ sense of humor down the uh … toilet. (No really, he has a giant robotic toilet). Can George, Harold and the dim-witted Captain Underpants save the day? Or will butt jokes be wiped out of our vernacular for good?
It’s so refreshing to see a film that doesn’t talk down to kids or spell everything out for them — I’m looking at you Blinky Bill the Movie (2015). Similarly, its great to see a kid-centered flick that doesn’t talk up to its young audience by bombarding them with mature themes — Cars 3 (2017) being one recent example. See, Captain Underpants speaks to children, on their level. While, sure, this one won’t change kids’ lives, but darn it, it allows the youngins to just be themselves and laugh at all the silliness in life. Writer Nicholas Stoller, Storks (2016), crams as much juvenile slapstick as he can fit into the flick’s ‘brief’ 89-minute runtime, possibly setting a new record for this sort of buffoonery, even perhaps driving those conservative mothers to sigh in frustration. But, by golly, I’ve never heard a bunch of children laugh this hard at a cinema before. Heck, I cackled, too!
Director David Soren, Turbo (2013), keeps the pace zipping along smoothly, only ever really slowing down around the mid-way mark to take the story into a different direction, before blasting off again. And while a gag centering on Professor P.’s full name is overused and definitely overstays its welcome, everything else here feels just right.
Visually, the film is gorgeous. In the same way that the story embraces its child-like nature and lack of seriousness, so too does the overall style — this is a world of exaggerated textures and facial expressions, all of which give life and dimension to the simplistic yet charming illustrations from Pilkey’s books. It totally bucks the trend of the two general directions that most CG features seem to go these days — either leaning towards a kind of realism, Pixar and DreamWorks often embracing this, or a cookie-cutter cartoon look, see Illumination Studios and the likes of Sing (2016). Unafraid to experiment with various off-the-wall ideas, the film features several striking 2D animation sequences — such as the origin story opener, which directly incorporates the books’ drawings — and later, a hilariously unexpected breakaway to live-action puppets. Production designer Nate Wragg, Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014), and the company of artists who’ve worked on the project ought to be proud — outside of the aforementioned The Peanuts Movie, I haven’t seen anything quite like this.
While The Emoji Movie (2017) plays like a blatant checklist of ‘how to make an animated pop culture film’ and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) is tragically bland, these school holidays, I’m rooting for the true champion of the season, Captain Underpants. Take the kids and your inner one, too. And bring on the sequel!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie