Perpetual pranksters and pals George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are threatened with separation in their school classes by the mean, fun-loathing Principal Krupp (Ed Helms). But when they accidentally convince him he’s Captain Underpants, a superhero they dreamt up, the result is chaos and the arrival of a threatening villain…
A grown man running around in tighty whitey underwear with a cape flapping behind him. A villain named Professor Poopypants. Fart gags. Toilet jokes. If you’re already chuckling, then chances are you might just be the target audience for Captain Underpants. Or six. Which is essentially the same thing.
Captain Underpants really isn’t a movie that’s looking to provide much for the entire family.
The latest attempt to convert a popular American kids’ book series into a movie (in this case, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants run of titles, which currently comprises 14 main books and six spin-offs with another on the way) is a hit-and-miss affair that frontloads the madness and then attempts to leaven it with sweet chatter about friendship and kindness. Those two tones don’t exact sit easily with one another, but the result is fitfully fun and bolstered by sprightly vocal work. Hart and Middleditch give their all to George and Harold, who, while they’re often hyperactive, never creep into grating, and you can imagine that they’ve been friends for years. Our heroes are sort of junior Deadpools (minus the swearing and bloody violence of course), stepping out of the narrative to comment on it, rolling the credits when they think the story is finished and, in an impressive moment, bringing one plot point to life through real-world sock puppet performances.
This is also a universe unto itself, and there’s a refreshing freedom from pop culture references, as the story sticks more to the sort of universal concerns that kids share: treasuring weekends, avoiding sullen teachers and, er, stopping a man jumping out of a window clad only in his undercrackers. It’s also a very different-looking film from the sharper angles of many of DreamWorks’ releases, giving the visuals an appealingly squishy feel. There’s fourth wall-breaking aplenty, a wild blend of animation styles and enough of a gag count to paper over some of the jokes that simply fall flat, even when the movie itself tries to convince you how hilarious it actually is. Helms, meanwhile, goes full grouch as the party-pooping (heh… pooping) Mr. Krupp, allergic to laughter and keen to prove that the troublesome twosome are a menace to the ordered society he’d like to maintain in the school. But when he’s hypnotised into believing he’s the titular hero, he’s all warbling catchphrases and Adam West-homaging heroics.
Captain Underpants really isn’t a movie that’s looking to provide much for the entire family, though. Despite some of the cleverer conceits on display here, it does have a tendency to slip into the loud, annoying category of “parent punisher” as once identified by director Jon Favreau. How much you get out of the movie really depends on your tolerance for random bodily function mentions. And though Nick Stoller and director Soren’s script aims to keep the story ticking over with the introduction of Nick Kroll’s nutty professor, sometimes to the expense of the good Captain himself, the result is the movie acting against its own interests, and spending too much time trying to make a point about finding the joy in life. Yes, even a film that can be inventive about how it unspools its plot is not immune from some of the well-trodden paths already deployed by other, better titles. The clear intent here is to launch another franchise (there’s certainly the source material), but you can’t help wishing that this one worked that little bit harder to justify its own existence first.
Silly and aimed squarely at the younger crowd, Captain Underpants has enough spirit to be entertaining. Just don’t expect it to work all the time.