In 2013, 2012, 2005, 2004 and 2002, the “Captain Underpants” books made the American Library Association’s top 10 challenged books. This is a list usually reserved for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Chocolate War,” “Of Mice and Men” and other well-known books. Ironically, “Captain Underpants” place on the list isn’t for its potty humor, but for its insensitivity and because it supposedly encourages children to disobey authority. For fans of the book, or those who don’t see that as a bad thing, you’ll be happy to know the movie keeps that spirit intact.
“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” begins with an introduction to George Beard (Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Middleditch). The two fourth graders love to pull pranks and share a creative disregard for their school principal, Benjamin Krupp (Helms). They’ve rebranded him in their comic book, “Captain Underpants,” as made him the title character. He faces off against foes who are also modeled off of other people at the school like annoying teachers, humorless dorks and evil toilets. But the comic hero comes to life when George uses a 3D hypno ring from a cereal box to escape Krupp’s ire. At the snap of their fingers, the stuffy principal dons the iconic white briefs that stretch above the belly button.
There’s an underlying charm to George and Harold’s antics because of how their friendship is birthed through a mutual love for the arts and immature humor. It’s hard not to root for a duo that pulls pranks after being oppressed for expressing themselves in imaginative and comedic ways. Sure it’s humor that makes a man-child giggle and an elementary school classroom roar with laughter, but it’s counterbalanced by witty subtlety. However, even the most juvenile minds might roll their eyes at some of the low hanging fruit “Captain Underpants” happily plucks.
There is some clever wordplay and sight gags for astute viewers. But the majority of fun is from the student and teacher caricatures populating Jerome Horowitz Elementary. Jordan Peele provides the unsavory voice of a teacher’s pet, Kristen Schaal adds a nasal flair to her trademark high pitch when voicing a bashful lunch lady and Nick Kroll uses a stereotypical German accent to voice the film’s ludicrous villain Professor Poopypants. There’s actually a decent reason why his name is so puerile.
Director David Soren plays with different visual styles and animation throughout to keep the eyes drawn to the screen. While the majority of animation is on par with other animated films, moments with sock puppets and sequences that feel like children’s crayon drawings coming to life add to George and Harold’s unique vision. Soren, however, isn’t able to do much with fight and action sequences in the final act that make it memorable.
For a movie about toilet humor, “Captain Underpants” never resorts to grossing out the audience for a cheap laugh and finds a surprising amount of emotional depth in its characters, even the ones that are the butt of the joke. “Captain Underpants” does spend a little bit too much time indulging in its own sophomoric humor when it could have been fine tuning its style a little bit more or focusing on parodying the superhero genre. But if “Captain Underpants” does want to play with the big bad boys of DC and Marvel, it certainly has the groundwork laid out.