Nicholas Stoller refuses to be pigeon-holed. There’s no other explanation for why someone would attempt to follow every R-Rated feature he makes with a film for kids, or vice versa. Not many people could juggle the turn around from a Zac Efron & Seth Rogen comedy to a Muppet film, let alone the animated insanity of Storks. This ability to juggle comedy for adults and kids alike comes to a head in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, a delightfully zany, if minor, animated effort.
No foreknowledge of the series of books by Dav Pilkey is required to enjoy the film. In fact, learning that this first movie actually combines plot elements of numerous different books is impressive, given the natural flow of the plot. Best friend 4th graders, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are inseparable. They do literally everything but sleep in the same bed (they do live next door to each other, though). Their favorite past times include pulling various pranks at school and writing comics together, their greatest achievement of which is “The Adventures of Captain Underpants.”
Their imagination and exuberance rips through the screen, usually in part due to the characters’ constant breaking of the 4th wall. It works given almost everything that transpires over the film’s crisp 88 minutes is larger than life. Two musical numbers, two dance breaks and one of the year’s best random tangents blaze across the screen, keeping things just irreverent enough for most viewers to never lose interest.Unfortunately for George and Harold, their principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), hates pranks and comics equally. He hates them so much in fact that he has forms permanently at the ready to split the boys into different classes. That is, if sufficient evidence ever comes to light.
Through a series of slightly convoluted and confusing events (a hypno-ring and the forces of the universe are involved), Krupp is hypnotized into believing he is actually Captain Underpants. While George & Harold are busy exploiting Krupp’s transformation, they miss the dark clouds that begin to loom overhead.
Out of the blue waltzes Professor P (Nick Kroll), a disgraced scientist driven mad by family legacy. His full name, upon reveal, is simultaneously childish and hysterical. The threat he poses to the boys though, is deadly serious. Stoller revels in the ability to mix tones and style, with the foreknowledge that the movie would be animated. This is something the live-action adaptations of Diary of a Wimpy Kid lost in translation.
With logic, common decency and physics thrown out the window, there’s more room to flex comedic muscles. Director David Soren is keen enough to hone in on the tone and world Stoller wants to portray. The marriage between written word and animation works beautifully.Captain Underpants offers refreshingly low stakes. It puts focus on the wonders of a child’s imagination, where literally everything can feel like the end of the world. Nothing ever threatens to feel too outlandish. For the most part, the world outside where George and Harold live is never in any danger, even with Professor P prancing about, or a giant Kaiju Toilet wrecking a path of destruction.
Scatological humor may rule the day in the second half of the film, but there’s an inspired energy invested in it that somehow raises it above its station. It’s sure to cause much eye rolling; there’s no avoiding that. The thing is, when done right, it can bring out a stifled chortle from even the most mature of adults.
The difference between Captain Underpants and something being put out by Disney or Pixar, is that it doesn’t want to be the end all, be all. It wants to set up the basic tenets of the world, expand one’s imagination and throw in some low brow humor. The fact that it also speaks volumes about the power of friendship is a happy accident.
By going outside the box, Captain Underpants finds another corner of the animated market to call its home. A place where sock puppet cutaways, evil geniuses from New Swissland and forlorn lunch ladies call home. It’s a place that families are sure to want to visit for years to come.