Dreamworks Animation has made its brand on ugly, adult-oriented “children’s” films, the type normally advertised as being “fun for the whole family.” What this invariably means is a movie where most of the jokes (and plots) are flying straight over the younger audience’s heads in order to placate the parents dragged along to these things, as if the rest of the entertainment world isn’t already geared toward grown-ups. Thankfully, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie breaks this mold.
This film is stupid. Endlessly, outrageously, overwhelmingly stupid. But that actually turns out to be a good thing. As Mel Brooks might say, “It rose below vulgarity.” The longest-running gag in the film is that the villain’s name is Professor Poopypants, and it’s a joke that works every time because there is just something inherently funny about a professor named Poopypants. And to a certain demographic, this goes double for farts, boogers, toilets, and the words “underpants” and “poopypants” in their own right. The filmmakers get this, the characters get it, and the audience of children at the screening I attended definitely got it. In fact, it was the first time in a long time I didn’t mind being in a dark theater with a crowd of loud, raucous kids. Probably because I was on their turf this time.
The Captain himself is the creation of two fourth-grade best friends, Harold and George (voiced by Thomas Middleditch and Kevin Hart, respectively). They’re the class clowns of their school, and spend afternoons up in their backyard treehouse creating their masterpiece: a series of comics starring their very own homemade superhero, Captain Underpants. Cap sports tighty-whiteys and a cape made from a curtain, flying around doing heroic deeds and defeating evil villains.
The boys run into trouble when Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) decides he’s had enough of these two and plans to place them in separate classrooms, which would effectively end their friendship. But when the kids accidentally hypnotize Krupp with a Hypno-Ring from a cereal box, Krupp is transformed into the real-life Captain, who takes the boys as his sidekicks and sets off on some less-than-impressive heroism. Unimpressive, that is, until Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) comes to town and announces his plan for world (and galactic, and universal) domination. The Professor even finds a sidekick of his own in the kids’ nemesis, the humorless nerd Melvin (Jordan Peele). It then becomes time for Captain Underpants and the boys to do some real world-saving.
It’s an inventively told story, and the movie zips right along, barely stopping for breath. We get the standard 3-D animation style common to these films, but also cel animation, a cut-and-paste collage montage, a scene shot completely with sock puppets on miniature sets, flipbook sequences, and even a theme song by “Weird Al” Yankovic. The film gets points, too, for working in an extremely subtle Curly Howard joke, though this was also presumably present in the source material. Still, a nice (and bizarre) touch. Where else are we gonna get an extremely subtle Curly Howard joke?