By Jack Dignan
There's a moment in Captain Underpants: The First Epic movie where Harold (Thomas Middleditch), shortly after witnessing the first appearance of Captain Underpants, turns to his best friend George (Kevin Hart) and asks "is it okay that I’m kinda loving this?" It's a simple question, and a reasonable response given the situation, but it becomes so much more than that. It becomes a beacon for the adult audience to latch onto. Their reluctance to enjoy the film is realised by the filmmakers, and understood by all involved, and they're allowed to agree. They think they aren't allowed to love this movie, I certainly didn't expect to, but they can't help it. It resonates with truth. That.... or I'm looking way too deep into a children's film about a bald man in underwear.
The first Captain Underpants book came out in 1997. It's comic book style and juvenile humour appealed to kids everywhere, myself included, and through its never ending sequels and endless poop puns, a fan base was spawned. In the early 2000s, this film would've killed at the box office. Every child that ever was would've forced their parents to venture out into the dark, brooding, popcorn smelling (if you're lucky) cinema to watch their favourite book series come to life. Instead, it's 2017, and this film is about a decade too late. But embracing my childhood, and what was perhaps my first introduction to the world of comic books (that's an unconfirmed fact but it wouldn't surprise me), I went out and saw this film. And I dug it a whole lot more than I thought I would.
George and Harold are the local school pranksters. They spend their time goofing off in class and writing a chain of popular comic books about the titular character of Captain Underpants. While their stories are big, exciting and action packed, in reality there biggest nemesis is Principal Krupp (Ed Helms). But when George and Harold uncover a mind-controlling ring found in a cereal box, they test it out on Krupp, turning him into the superhero they’ve been writing about. Krupp, or Captain Underpants as he’s now known as, is loose in the world attempting to foil criminals at every turn, and he’s come just in time top stop a newly hired science teacher, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), who may just have an evil scheme in the works…
It’s a plot that’s about as juvenile and unappealing as they come, jam packed with a plethora of pee, poo and fart jokes, but it’s screenwriter Nicholas Stoller’s self aware humour that makes this morning show program of an idea work. He elevates the source material into something accessible for all, which is an incredibly hard task when your plot has a giant, radioactive toilet terrorizing the town. It’s full of fourth wall breaks and self-parody, all while embracing the goofiness of the premise without disrespecting what makes kids love it so much. There are plenty of thematic undertones relating to friendship, love, doing the right thing, being a kid, the flawed school system, what makes a hero, looking at things from a different side and the current state of cinema. It’s wild.
Armed with a pulpy, colourful clip-art style of animation, the visuals are a perfect escape for what’s considered the norm. It’s different and alive. Every frame has a hidden visual gag buried deep inside, not all of which work perfectly, but it creates liveliness constantly present on screen. Something is always happening. There’s never a dull sight, even with plenty of tedious, plot-dragging moments throughout. The pacing is a little slow. Captain Underpants’ 89-minute runtime felt as though it went way longer than It, which I saw yesterday and clocks in at a whopping 145 minutes. There’s plenty of excitement to be had, most of which will keep the kid’s eyes glued, but its repetitive nature does begin to drag.
Thankfully, however, this animation style lends a helping hand into allowing the audience to believe that Kevin Hart, aged 38, and Thomas Middleditch, aged 35, can pull off the squeaky voices of a primary school kid. Every character is played by somebody in their late 30s or 40s, and while it’s distracting half the time, the other half plays out to hilarious, gut bursting results. It’s middle-aged adults joking about whoopee cushions, yet the film embraces its potty humour as the lowest form of comedy (that’s an actual line in the movie) and delivers some of the best potty humour ever put to screen. A lot of it is aimed more towards kids, consequently making older audiences relate to Jordan Peele’s stuck-up Melvin, but for every joke that falls flat, the next one ends up working.
The fact that a movie based on the Captain Underpants books isn’t entirely intolerable is quite the surprise. While your kids are inevitably going to drag you to this these upcoming school holidays, rest assured, it’s not the end of the world. After all, The Emoji Movie hits cinemas around the same time, so if they’re wanting to see that, just suggest Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie instead.
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