There’s no question that – despite the timeless Marvel vs. DC debate (or perhaps because of it?) – superhero cinema is here to stay for a long time. The recent releases of such critically acclaimed efforts as Logan and this week’s Wonder Woman, however, underscore the genre’s need to explore some fresh approaches to comic book storytelling, lest the million think pieces heralding the cinematic fall of superheroes come to fruition. So, while adults looking to satisfy their bloodlust can see Hugh Jackman shredding off limbs in the aforementioned latest X-Men film, children can root for a decidedly less self-serious hero in Dreamworks’ latest release, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.
Based on the 12-book series by author Dav Pilkey, the film follows elementary school students George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who stumble upon the perfect way to keep their school’s notorious Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) from standing in the way of their legendary pranks. Namely, they hypnotize Krupp into thinking that he’s the living embodiment of their fictional comic book superhero, the eponymous Captain Underpants. But when a true villain (Nick Kroll) — with a name that we’ll consider a spoiler for those of you unfamiliar with the property – emerges on the scene, will the hypnotized Krupp and his tighty-whities be enough to stave off this evil plan?
The summer is traditionally littered with an array of animated entertainment, as studios capitalize on these out-of-school months to appeal to younger moviegoers. Yet, while many of these feel like corporately conceived cash-ins, Captain Underpants rides the enduring appeal of its source material – which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year – to bring something a bit different to the screen. While director David Soren’s (Turbo) film features an amalgamation of story elements from several different books in the series, it easily nails the silly tone that has made the character a sensation.
Considering that Captain Underpants boasts a script by Nicholas Stoller – the writer of Disney’s most recent Muppet films and the writer/director behind Storks – it’s no surprise that the film achieves a solid balance between superhero parody and a legitimate launchpad for a prospective cinematic franchise. That being said, the pacing does seem a bit rushed towards the third act, as the titular hero’s origin is wrapped up with only the most superficial of setups. Moreover, some of the running gags and subplots wear thin after awhile, especially since the film offers only a modicum of heart to emotionally ground the story.
That’s a problem that didn’t plague the similarly snappy Big Hero 6 a few years ago, though Captain Underpants plays a greater emphasis on laughs than that Disney effort. After all, the film’s target audience certainly won’t notice any storytelling flaws amidst the potty humor. Rather, the chief question is whether Captain Underpants is clever enough to lace its childish gags with something for adults to enjoy with their children.
Thankfully, Stoller’s script is bolstered by the film’s cast. The gifted voice actors – all experienced comedy stars – sell the goofy story with gusto, with Helms in particular earning high marks for his ability to play a curmudgeonly teacher one moment and transition directly into a “tra-la-la” the very next. Hart and Middleditch, as the de facto protagonists, share a tangible comedic chemistry, with the former much funnier and more endearing here than in his grating role as a spastic bunny in last year’s tired The Secret Life of Pets. There’s a Saturday morning cartoon style at play in Captain Underpants that very much feels like a throwback for an earlier era of children’s entertainment, and it helps that the entire cast – including Jordan Peele and Kristen Schaal in supporting roles – is seemingly onboard with Soren and Stoller’s vision.
In a time when dark and gritty superhero films are dividing audiences with their grim themes and extreme violence, Captain Underpants emerges as an antidote to that approach, a silly little trifle of a movie that will delight kids and keep their parents engaged throughout. Its shamelessly sophomoric sense of humor only sporadically leans into inspired territory, but while it may not arrive as an instant classic, the ambitiously titled Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie easily stands among the best animated films of the year so far. Whether or not you grew up with the book series, there’s a lot to enjoy here, so gather up the children in your life and prepare for 89 minutes of pure fun.
In his big screen debut, Captain Underpants brings a much-needed irreverence and tongue in cheek sense of adventure to the superhero genre that should please more than just its target audience.