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Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

…Sure, why the hell not?

No, I’ve never been the least bit interested in something with a title like “Captain Underpants”, and I was already out of grade school (barely) when the character debuted. The film adaptation was written by Nicholas Stoller, whose CV is all over the place in terms of quality (The Muppets and its inferior sequel, Yes ManZoolander 2Sex TapeGulliver’s Travels, etc.). On directing duties is David Soren (taking over from exec producer Rob Letterman, also of Gulliver’s Travels infamy), and Soren’s directing experience is slim. His only other feature credit is for Turbo, not exactly one of Dreamworks’ greatest hits.

Speaking of which, this is DreamWorks’ cheapest film to date, with a reported budget of only $38 million. Likely because this is Dreamworks’ final picture in collaboration with 20th Century Fox, before restructuring takes them to Universal. Seems to me like that could make the prospect of a Second Epic Movie rather thorny. Though that apparently wasn’t a problem with Boss Baby, which already has a sequel in the works, so what do I know?

Anyway, I was tempted to give Captain Underpants a pass, all things considered. But the reviews were solid and I wanted to put off reviewing The Mummy (2017) just a little bit longer, so I went ahead to see what I was missing. And ultimately, I’m glad I did.

For those who don’t know the story, let’s get you up to speed. Our main characters are actually a couple of grade school kids, names of George Beard and Harold Hutchins (respectively voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch). The two of them are best friends and constant pranksters, doing everything they can to bring laughter and joy to the draconian Jerome Horwitz Elementary School. In addition to their class clowning, George and Harold run “Treehouse Comix Inc.” out of a treehouse in George’s backyard. There, they put their wild imagination into comic form, their most treasured creation being… wait for it… Captain Underpants.

Let’s look at what we’ve got so far. We have two lead characters who perfectly evoke the subversive joy in sharing secrets and getting into trouble with a childhood friend. Perhaps more importantly, we have a movie that celebrates the act of creation. It’s all about having fun and making something that nobody else could even dream of. And even if the creation itself is inane and ridiculous, it’s still a step toward something even better — several times, the characters themselves explicitly comment on how they’re always improving.

As the film continues, we get some very prominent messages about our education system. While none of them are overt enough to distract from the stone-simple and fast-paced nature of the story, we do get a couple of subtle yet sharp references to how our teachers are overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. Far more notably, the movie makes a powerful and direct statement in favor of keeping art and music in our schools. And while the film has a wild anti-authoritarian streak, quite explicitly telling kids that adults aren’t always right and a little civil disobedience is necessary at times, that message is carefully tempered with a scene that demonstrates the clear need for responsibility.

But let’s get back to Captain Underpants himself. To start with, how could anyone come up with such a ridiculous idea in the first place? Well, George and Harold themselves break the fourth wall (Yeah, they do that a lot in this picture.) to explain that superheroes already look like they’re flying around in their underwear, so this is just taking it one step further. Which is actually kinda genius. Oh, and he has a catchphrase of “Tra la laaaaa!” because… well, why not?

And how exactly does Captain Underpants himself fit into the narrative? Well, that’s actually another neat little twist in the premise: Our main hero and one of our main villains… are actually the same person.

Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) is the bullying blowhard who runs his elementary school with the express goal of crushing all creativity and fun. During one of his many, many office meetings with George and Harold, they somehow manage to hypnotize him with a toy they found in a cereal box. Yes, really. And when they notice that Krupp just happens to perfectly resemble their own comic book creation, they hypnotize Krupp into thinking that he really is Captain Underpants. So he switches from one alter ego to the other, and sometimes acts as the Captain while maintaining Krupp as a secret identity. Only trouble is, he doesn’t actually have superpowers (until later, but we won’t get into that). Hilarity ensues.

But while Krupp is certainly a prominent villain, he’s not exactly a supervillain who poses a direct threat to our superhero. Enter Professor P, voiced by Nick Kroll. He’s a mad scientist badly masquerading as a grade school science teacher, using his students as guinea pigs for an experiment that will end all laughter. He’s pissed off because everybody keeps laughing at his name, you see — his real name is “Professor Poopypants”, and his full name is even worse.

The filmmakers take great pains to note that the Professor’s name isn’t his problem. It’s his inability to laugh at himself that’s the problem. I can’t possibly overstate how huge an emphasis is placed on laughter. According to this movie, laughter is what brings people together, inspires creativity, cures all ills, and defeats all evils. Even if it’s laughter over something so base as potty humor, at least it’s a sign of joy in an otherwise gray and dreary world.

But let’s take a step back and comment on the notion of bodily humor as the lowest kind of comedy. That’s not necessarily true, and this film is proof — humor without effort is the lowest kind of comedy. Talking about shit or showing shit and expecting to get a laugh on the premise that shit is inherently funny is the lowest kind of comedy. And mercifully, the film never goes that low.

While there is more than a fair bit of potty humor in this movie, there is incredible effort put into making every joke land. One notable example concerns a showstopping number in which the Captain (disguised as Krupp) conducts a grade school choir that plays music on whoopee cushions. With actual farts and various bodily noises mixed in. It’s such a tired premise, but it comes so completely out of left field, with so many different kinds of jokes coming in so quickly from all manner of directions, that it becomes hysterical. Plus, it’s rooted in the premise of “If you were a grade school kid and you had total control over your principal, what would you have him do?” And this answer to that question is genuinely funny.

Then we have Poopypants himself. It comes as no surprise that his name is treated as a bottomless source of humor. But it’s almost entirely based on the premise that if somebody actually had a name like that, everyone who heard it would either crack up laughing or die from the strain of trying not to. A name like that would be worth a lifetime of ridicule, such that anyone might be motivated to become a mad scientist just to make it so nobody would ever laugh again. Both concepts check out, at least to the extent that this movie sets the bar for suspension of disbelief.

Oh, and also: The centerpiece of the climax is literally a giant toilet. That’s taking potty humor to such a ridiculous extent, it demands a certain kind of respect.

Probably the absolute best thing I could say about this movie is that it commits. And it commits hard. This is a movie that knows exactly how stupid it is, to the point where our main characters break the fourth wall to make sure we know they know how stupid it is. Yet it’s done with such overwhelming effort and gleeful abandon that the jokes still work. The filmmakers know that they’re being juvenile, and they know that they’re making stuff up that doesn’t make any sense, but they so clearly don’t give a fuck about it and they’re having so much fun that it’s hard not to get swept up in it. While this is definitely a stupid movie, it’s not a brainless one — the jokes are all so perfectly executed and made in the service of such a clear message that the filmmakers very obviously knew exactly what they were doing (see also: The Lego Movie).

Unfortunately, this works as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, things need to be heightened for the sake of humor, and the filmmakers needed to create a world in which a laughter-hating mad scientist named “Professor Poopypants” could plausibly exist. On the other hand, this overly heightened world does no small amount of damage to Captain Underpants. His presence is supposed to be something miraculous and extraordinary, a superhuman in an otherwise mundane world. That doesn’t work nearly as well when a guy running around in his briefs, claiming superpowers he doesn’t have, doesn’t even rank in the top ten weirdest things about this picture.

To be entirely honest, I thought it was weirder that George and Harold go to such outrageous extents in protecting the Captain and his “secret identity”. I have no idea why the kids kept doing this. It’s not like they have any reason to care about what happens to Krupp, and watching destructive mayhem at the expensive of deserving assholes would be entirely in character for them. I fail to see any reason for them to save the Captain from himself, save only that the plot demands they do so.

Speaking of plot problems, there’s Mr. Krupp’s ongoing threats to destroy George and Harold’s friendship by placing them in separate classrooms. To be fair, this is used to make a poignant statement about how friends tend to drift away over time, done in a way that will surely resonate with any adults in the audience. On the other hand, even the  characters themselves know that this dastardly plot is pure bullshit. There’s nothing to stop them from meeting each other at the treehouse, after all, and they still live right next door to each other! I really want to stress that the looming threat of their friendship getting destroyed through separation into different classrooms is a HUGE component of the plot, easily the biggest defining factor in these boys’ interactions with Krupp. And it’s pathetically weak.

Moving on to the voice cast, I can’t help feeling like the leads could’ve been stronger. While this certainly isn’t the worst Kevin Hart performance I’ve ever heard and Thomas Middleditch does all right, I don’t think they were necessarily the best choices to play a couple of grade-school kids. Nick Kroll fares a lot better as the Professor, putting on the thickest possible accent in a way that simultaneously makes the character funny and menacing. But the standout of the main cast has got to be Ed Helms. Whether he’s Krupp or the Captain, Helms always sounds like he’s having the time of his goddamn life. I can guarantee that his “Tra la laaa!” will be stuck in your head for days, he makes the catchphrase that iconic.

The supporting cast is regrettably weaker. Jordan Peele plays a brainy teacher’s pet named Melvin; and Kristen Schaal is the voice of Edith, the lunch lady and possible love interest for Krupp. Both are immensely talented performers wasted in thankless roles.

As for the music, I was consistently nonplussed with the brief musical numbers that got thrown in. Easily the best song in the movie is the theme song played over the end credits, written and performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Which makes all manner of sense.

Captain Underpants is a parody that — on its own eccentric terms — stands apart from and equal to the very thing it’s parodying. It’s random from start to finish, yet constructed with such clear attention to detail that there’s clearly a method in the madness. It’s stupid, but not brainless. Silly, but totally sincere. So yeah, Yankovic’s style couldn’t possibly be a more perfect match for this film.

This movie is gleefully, defiantly stupid. It’s subversive and irreverent, with a lot of messages about laughter, friendship, creation, responsibility, and other such themes all presented with a distinctly individualist tone. Yet the film itself is simple enough and funny enough, with such an infectious sense of childlike joy, that audiences of all ages can find something in it to appreciate. It also helps a great deal that the movie comments on itself and makes fun of itself to such an outlandish and endlessly inventive degree — often commenting directly on many of its own flaws — that the film almost makes itself immune from criticism.

If you think this isn’t your thing, you won’t lose anything by waiting for home video. If you have to get dragged to the theater by your kids, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with this one. In any case, I was very pleasantly surprised by this one and I can definitely recommend it.

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