Yes, Captain Underpants, if its name did not give it away, it is phenomenally stupid— but that’s point.
I remember picking up the first “Captain Underpants” at an elementary school book fair. Who would have believed that twenty years later it would result in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, which dutifully fills Dreamworks requirement for a children’s summer movie. At the same time, its arrival makes a kind of sense. Since Iron Man in 2008, and even before that with Spider-Man and X-Men, super heroics have been a staple of the summer movie season while subsequently taking over more and more of the major studios’ slates.
Captain Underpants proves how flexible this model is by neatly mapping the established norms of the superhero genre into what is ostensibly a kids movies. That’s right, this is another origin story, replete with montages and thinly sketched villains, hitting all the beats you would expect from any Marvel Phase One film.
This proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Even for the kids this movie is in theory aimed at, there’s just not a lot here that they haven’t seen before. It does not help that Captain Underpants continues the trend of lesser animation studios to essentially talk down to their audience. Despite writer Nicholas Stoller legitimately great work on Neighbors 2 and The Muppets, here he seems to fall back on the gratuitously stupid belief that it is necessary for characters to remark about events that the audience has literally just seen happen, as though the writers believed the young people watching this movie were too stupid to get what they were seeing and needed constant prodding by characters whose function is more or less to say, “Hey, hey, hey, did you get that?”
It’s this condescension that rankles. Going back to those books I bought as a young reader, there has never been a pretense that characters as scatalogically themed as Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll, who I’ll come back too later) or Captain Underpants (Ed Helms, pulling double duty as the superhero and his aggressively dour alter ego, Principle Krupp) could ever be considered deep. At the same time, their appeal has always stemmed from creator Dave Pilkey’s essential anti-authoritarianism. As both the books and the movies make clear, there’s a real inherent value to this sort of juvenile vulgarity, one which adults are too quick to dismiss. It’s dumb cheap humor is worn proudly, and even if the story falters Captain Underpants always returns to this central theme. In Captain Underpants, parents are entirely absent, and the adults who are present are all simultaneously aloof and overbearing, painted in dull grays that highlight how these kids see them. They’re boring, and their function seems to be making kids lives miserable.
No wonder, then, that main characters Harold (Thomas Middleditch) and George (Kevin Hart, who has always seemed a kid at heart and whose performances is one of the standouts) write comics about an egg shaped man who wears a shower curtain and underwear and beats up toilets. Laughing in the face of their crushing circumstances is their way of coping with a cruel and indifferent world.
Luckily, Captain Underpants nails this foundational aspect of Pilkey’s world. And that world, it should be noted, is brought to life by some of the most impressive animation I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that Harold and Gorgeous exploits occupy a bizarre space in between claymation and traditional three-dimensional animation, but that the film frequently flits between styles. One memorable dream sequence plays out through sock puppets, while another is rendered in flip-book style two dimensional animation. More than anything Pixar has done recently, this combination of styles bring Harold and George’s reality to life. It feels kid-like in a way that goes beyond most children’s movies, because it’s soul is rooted in this freewheeling sense of experimentation.
It helps that, in the end, Captain Underpants is sincerely funny. Its playfulness means that there’s no abundance of sight gags, such as a third act confrontation that is told via flip book (because it’s “cheaper,” as Harold and George tell us), but the film also offers definitive proof of something that I’ve long suspected: Nick Kroll is one of the funniest people working today. Where his character in Sausage Party was an extension of his “Kroll Show” persona Bobby Bottleservice, here he taps into the equally bizarre The European to bring Professor Poopypants to life. A diminutive Einstein, Poopypants is all euro sleeze, while Kroll manages the impressive feat of being comedically broad enough to earn easy laughs but also instilling a sense of pathos in what could have been a one off gag, giving genuine depth to a villain whose driven by the fact that everybody he meets laughs at his name.
Captain Underpants is a rare summer surprise, a movie based on a decades old children’s comic that still feels shockingly relevant. While not as deep as recent works like Kubo, it still manages to set itself apart by embracing dumb toilet humor and saying that sometimes it’s ok, or even important, to be dumb and silly and fun. In a world that, especially now, feels impossibly self serious, Captain Underpants serves as a powerful reminder that sometimes the most important thing is simply to laugh.