The Captain Underpants books have been enjoyed across the world since the late 90’s, telling the story of an accidental superhero born from a hypnosis mishap, by two kids who have a problem with authority. It sounds delightfully wacky, and despite a bit of controversy, with some schools and libraries even going as far as banning the books for various reasons, the Captain Underpants novels continue to be beloved by both children, and former children who have since grown up. Much like the case with Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon, along with the most recent The Boss Baby, this creates another ripe opportunity for Dreamworks Animation to adapt a beloved series of childrens’ books for the big screen.
Despite making the ill-advised decision to compete directly against Warner Bros.’ and DC Entertainment’s superhero movie masterpiece, Wonder Woman at the box office, the rather presumptuously titled Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is also a lot better than it has any right to be, much like the source books. Children will naturally adore the movie, which effectively maintains the source books’ potty humour, mischievous tone and zany pacing, and while children definitely appear to be the primary target audience, adults will also find plenty to like, or at least tolerate, in this Captain Underpants film adaptation. If you’re still a kid at heart though, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie could very well be one of Summer 2017’s best dark horse surprises, and anyone who has any appreciation for light-hearted animated movies should definitely check it out!
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie stars George Beard, voiced by Kevin Hart, and Harold Hutchins, voiced by Thomas Middleditch. Kevin and Harold are best friends, as well as the lovable pranksters of their elementary school, and this quickly gets them on the bad side of their school’s grumpy principal, Mr. Krupp, voiced by Ed Helms. It’s Krupp that eventually becomes the titular Captain Underpants, after a convenient ‘hypnosis ring’ that was confiscated from George has Krupp believing that he is the ridiculous superhero that Kevin and Harold invented in their shared love of creating comic books together.
The difference between Krupp and Captain Underpants is very extensive, of course, since Krupp is constantly miserable and over-the-top mean, while Captain Underpants is unyielding in his happiness and carefree attitude, creating a surprisingly funny conflict about which side the two boys should bring out in any given situation. Since Captain Underpants has no actual superpowers, and is extremely reckless to boot, it’s sometimes necessary to bring Krupp back, which is done by getting Captain Underpants wet, even if a snap of the finger is all it takes to restore Krupp’s carefree alter-ego. This is played for both humour and excitement, as George and Harold must try and mask their accident with their principal as best they can, especially in a school that’s filled with depressed students and apathetic teachers.
Of course, when a villain comes into the picture however, Krupp’s outrageous ‘condition’ might have to be what saves the school! This villain comes in the form of Professor Poopypants, voiced by Nick Kroll, a recognizable villain from the source books. While Professor Poopypants’ plot differed slightly in the source books, since he now wants to deprive the world of laughter in the movie, instead of give everyone a name as silly as his, his motivations of wanting revenge for people mocking his name are more or less the same. Kroll also fully leans into the absurdity as well, with his voice being completely unrecognizable under a highly exaggerated fake foreign accent, and one that suits the character perfectly.
On that note, we really couldn’t have asked for a better voice cast in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, who brilliantly realize each character to sound pretty much exactly as they should sound. Ed Helms is a particular highlight, alongside Kroll, since he perfectly manages the task of making Captain Underpants sound as strangely inspiring as he is inherently ludicrous. Hart and Middleditch sound like their usual selves when voicing George and Harold, but their voices still fit the characters very well, and probably emulate what kids who read the books probably imagined George and Harold would sound like. Sure, they don’t sound that much like children, and are clearly two grown men voicing two child characters, but the energy and charm behind the performances still makes Hart and Middleditch feel perfect for these personalities.
There are a handful of other characters in the movie, who mostly serve to create either gag fodder, or a couple of foils as well. Jordan Peele voices Melvin Sneedly for example, the snooty antagonist to George and Harold from the source books, who is portrayed as aggressively stuck-up and incapable of laughter in the movie, making him an easy ally to Professor Poopypants. Kristen Schaal also provides plenty of charm and chuckles as a re-tooled Edith, now a shy lunch lady and love interest to Krupp, rather than just a cranky secretary like she was in the books. As you can imagine, the characters are kept very simple in this film adaptation, since the movie so clearly wants to appeal to children most of all, but that fits with the over-the-top comical nature of the movie and the source books, namely by creating a series of personalities that are all about the laughs and smiles. Considering the big conflict of the movie, that’s really all they need to provide.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie loosely adapts the fourth book in the Captain Underpants series, Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, with the only noticeable difference, beyond the origin story having to be done here, is its titular villain’s evil plot being changed, like I said. It probably won’t surprise you to know that there isn’t much in the way of depth when it comes to Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, especially since it clocks in at a pretty speedy 89-minute runtime, making it noticeably shorter than the vast majority of Dreamworks Animation’s movies.
What nonetheless elevates the otherwise simple-minded and crude story of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie however is its surprisingly superb script, which was written by R-rated comedy veteran, Nicholas Stoller. Stoller’s a very talented comedy writer, even when he makes a rare venture to family-friendly fare, as he proved with Disney’s modern duo of The Muppets movies from a few years ago, as well as Warner Animation Group’s Storks from last year. That same inspiration and wit translates surprisingly well to Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, which stands as a celebration of the power of laughter, going all the way back to our youngest years.
This is a movie that forces you to admit that a lot of the stupid things you found funny as a kid will probably still amuse you as an adult, or at least they should, if you have any semblance of that inner child left. That simple satisfaction of laughing alongside any kids you may have with you in the audience, or maybe another adult that’s as proudly immature as you truly are deep down, leaves you with a movie that you can’t help but smile at. The story provides the exact right distraction that it means to, thereby accomplishing its simple agenda of just getting you to get off your high horse and giggle, and therefore unifying children and adults alike in their shared love and necessity of laughter.
David Soren directs Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, after previously making his feature film debut with another Dreamworks Animation movie, Turbo. Soren’s wired directing style is a pretty perfect fit for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie as well, since it gives the movie a sense of upbeat, juvenile energy that perfectly mirrors that of Captain Underpants himself. Even the scenes that are supposed to be bleak are played with a lively, comical hand, with the misery at Jerome Horowitz Elementary being so over-the-top that even it becomes funny before long.
It also must be stressed that Soren effortlessly captures the feel and style of the books with how the animation and characters in Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie are presented. Everything has a commitment to being faithful to the books, complete with the simple, light-hearted design to the characters and world, combined with the crazy cartoon atmosphere. Soren wisely doesn’t waste time adding layers and depth to a movie that really doesn’t need it, instead focusing on what Captain Underpants is fundamentally about, and just having fun with that. This may not sound very appealing to more uptight adults, but to kids, the movie’s direction will be a blast! When it comes to having fun, you really get out of this movie what you put into it, and if you don’t try to read into the movie, the energy and charm will quickly tickle you in a way that few kids’ movies manage to do so effectively.
Theodore Shapiro composes the soundtrack to Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (yes, seriously!), after scoring quite a few R-rated comedies and over-the-top action-comedies most of all. Shapiro doesn’t usually compose kids’ flicks, but then again, Nicholas Stoller isn’t known for writing many kids’ flicks either. As with putting Stoller on the script, having Shapiro compose the musical score proves to be a surprisingly effective choice, since the soundtrack to Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is just as fun and delightfully zany as everything else!
The rest of the audio work is also firmly in the realm of cartoon hyperbole, though it surprisingly never ends up becoming obnoxious. This isn’t a movie with very much ‘action’ in it, as it were, since it’s more about making low-brow potty jokes and simply having fun. Even the climactic battle against Professor Poopypants is pretty light and fluffy in terms of its audio design, so there’s no chance of children ever being frightened or uncomfortable at any point in the movie. It all fits the tone though, with the audio being as fun and lovable as the visual design at all times.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie perfectly follows the simple, likable art style of the source books, only now realizing it in fully three-dimensional CG. This provides another great chance for Dreamworks Animation to stretch their artistic range, and while Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is nowhere near the visual masterwork of the How To Train Your Dragon movies or Kung Fu Panda movies, it still provides a fun and colourful look that plays well to the CG film medium. Kids will inevitably get the most out of the visuals here, since adults will probably have seen better from Dreamworks Animation, let alone competitors like Disney/Pixar, but Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie nonetheless presents the reliable polish that you’ve no doubt come to expect from Dreamworks Animation.
Regrettably, I wasn’t able to assess the 3D presentation for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, since there are, strangely, virtually no 3D showings of the movie in my area at all. This is very rare for animated movies (I don’t think I’ve encountered this issue with movie screenings since Illumination Entertainment’s Minions in 2015, and I was able to fairly easily find a 3D showing of that after its proper public release!), and feels especially odd for Dreamworks Animation, a studio that is famous for delivering some of the best 3D presentations out of Hollywood! If you do manage to find a 3D showing of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, that’s probably the best way to watch it, since the zippy, vibrant visuals really do seem like they’re designed with a 3D presentation in mind. The movie still looks like a perfectly-realized animated Captain Underpants movie when watched flat in 2D though, even if it unfolds on a much smaller scale than many of Dreamworks Animation’s best known animated movie franchises. Like I said, kids will probably love the visuals the most, though adults can still appreciate that usual Dreamworks Animation polish.
You could be forgiven for not expecting much from Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, but you’d be surprised to see that the movie is far from a juvenile misfire. In fact, it’s actually a pretty good family movie, and a likely contender for one of this Summer’s best movies that you probably aren’t likely to see. Even if you have children that you sometimes take to the theatre, it’s more probable that you’re waiting on the release of the more established Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3 for your next family movie trip. I do encourage you to give Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie a chance if you’re at all curious though, especially if you have kids that might be interested in it. Even if you wait for the movie to arrive for rent on home viewing (and in areas like mine, you might as well, given that 3D showings seem to be strangely scarce), it’s worth checking out, since it’s significantly better than it has any right to be.
Even with kids being the primary target audience of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, adults who don’t mind a simple-minded good time will still find plenty to like, if they still can’t help but chuckle at toilet humour. Normally, such a low-brow and idiotic movie would be seen as lowest common denominator-skewing garbage, but thanks to the right careful and intelligent hands throughout production, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie thrives in its simple-minded idiocy. It’s a simple movie with a simple wish to make you remember what initially amused you as a kid, and how it can still amuse you when you’re older. Like the books that inspired it, this is a movie that encourages the necessity of laughter, especially among children. When it delivers on that simple goal so effectively, how could you possibly begrudge it?
- Lovable cast of characters with entertaining voice performances throughout
- Zany direction and style will effortlessly amuse kids in particular
- Surprisingly effective themes of celebrating laughter
- Doesn't quite achieve the visual heights of many other Dreamworks Animation movies
- Simply won't appeal to some more uptight adults