CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE Review

Posted on Tuesday, January 9th, 2018 at 7:30 pm

[Originally written for and published on Crossfader Magazine]

Modern comedies are on notice. No doubt, to pull a laugh is a hard enough craft. To apply a narrative into it, rather, weave one through its DNA, is a whole other expertise. A lot of traditional mainstream comedies coming to wide release these days take some easy ways out, be it through poorly orchestrated improvisation, lazy filmmaking, and generally not acknowledging that every possible story detail is a tool in a filmmaker’s palette, begging to be explored and used. Travelling outside of comedies, audiences are often satisfied when their experiences are grand, meaningful. In what feels like a gallon of ice cold water amidst a buffet of excessively similar sand, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE is an utterly refreshing comedy (and hopefully not the last of its kind).

For the uninitiated, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS is a bit of a meta-tale. It’s a story about storytellers, found in young George and Harold (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch, respectively): elementary school students, comic book artists, and rapscallions who just love to laugh and make others laugh. Often pulling pranks at the cranky staff’s expense, they’re number one and two on the list of the relentlessly prickly Principal Krupp (Ed Helms). George and Harold’s friendship has been the bane of Krupp’s existence. In classic origin story fashion, George and Harold manage to get Krupp under a spell of hypnotism and turn him into their very own comic book creation of Captain Underpants: a heroic, friendly, and kind of dumb super hero. This occurs just in time too, as a professional super villain named, ahem, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll doing his thing) snakes his way into being a science teacher at the school, only to put forward plans to literally take away humanity’s ability to laugh.

This big screen adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s beloved children’s graphic novels of the same name has a little of everything that one could want from a film-going experience, and actually feels accessible to most, if not all, audiences. Of course, this is, at the very least, a film for kids. There are solid lessons taught in organic and sweet fashions, as well as a sense of humor that doesn’t condescend, but indulges in the universally goofy. Grown up fans of things like COMEDY BANG! BANG! and Edgar Wright films, or digging even deeper back to the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker canon, will find hearty amounts of well thought out hilarity to be had here.

On a performance level, screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, calling to mind his work on THE MUPPETS, laid solid groundwork that double underlines and highlights the idea of “play.” Middleditch and Hart have unprecedentedly delightful chemistry, embodying the smile-heavy personalities of George and Harold. Their friendship is palpable, which for readers of the book is a subtle, but key, factor. Ed Helms turns it up with pride portraying the titular Captain Underpants, and is endlessly entertaining in character. The self-serious hero dialogue and signature “Tra-la-laaaaa” theme bring forth a SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS level of giddiness and delight. Stacked up against Nick Kroll digging into what he does best, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS even proves entertainment value to the level of being able to purely listen to the film.

Major credit to directors David Soren & Rob Letterman for going appropriately wild for a story and world so deeply indebted and focused upon the celebration of imagination. The implemented meta-structure allowing George and Harold to talk directly to the audience and ostensibly direct the film as it goes calls to mind THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE. CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS is as whip-smart, irreverent, and clever in its approach to character perspective. Their emotions and fears are both existentially grand and youthfully fleeting. Considering our “directors” are kids whose minds run a-mile-a-minute, they utilize drawings, sock puppets, and, for fans of the books, they even sport a referential FLIP-O-RAMA sequence depicting an action scene they “didn’t have the budget for.” The page tears and everything! This mindset makes for a consistently fresh and endearing journey that is not only admirable for a comedy for kids, but for comedic cinema in general.

This is a movie filled to the brim with jokes, both loud and subtle. While the film beautifully celebrates the need to laugh at the ridiculousness of life, the human body, and most importantly, one’s own self, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS notably boasts a laudable visual gag streak. This film reaches seasons 4-7 of THE SIMPSONS levels of utter audacity when it comes to design choices and background actions. It’s comforting knowing that comedies can still be made with much denser consideration than unwieldy improvisation and slow-motion montages to rap music. Yes, there are some moments that feel a little obligatory to the momentary genre and style, such as odd dance sequences, and the portrayal of George and Harold’s tree house, which at once feels like a toy advertisement and a lightly charming character build. It almost puts to shame any internal curmudgeon one could have, purely by having a delightful time from beginning to end. The film feels somewhat transcendent, rarely flashing a dull moment, if ever.

Not only is the film successfully hilarious, but CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS is very sweet. It champions love and friendship at every turn. No matter how outlandish and immature it gets, it never loosens its hug-like grip on the viewer, insisting upon throwing caution to the wind in favor of just having a good time, for the time being. George and Harold get to hang out with the audience, be it a kid, parent, or stoned millennial digging for nostalgia, making it an experience not unlike a theme park ride, or the memories of the best times one has had with a dear friend, thinking up stories and playing pretend. There are worse things for cinema to be able to call to mind. Fellow films made for younger audiences can learn from this film’s carefully crafted carefree sensibilities. Heck, all movies can gain something here. Simply put, it’s a reminder that stories and movies are fun! So have fun while making them. Maybe they’ll be as fun to watch as this one.

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