The titular hero is a relatively large man who goes around in his underwear, and the villain is Professor Poopypants. At one point, there is a whoopee cushion symphony.
Yes, “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is quite clear about the level at which it operates, and if your six-year-old is anything like mine, they’re going to enjoy themselves watching it. The movie is a nearly nonstop barrage of early elementary school potty (literally) humor at the center of which lie two pranksters, George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch). The kids turn their horrific principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into Captain Underpants with the help of a hypnotizing ring from a box of cereal.
There are some truly wonderful moments in the film. These, by and large, are the times when “Captain Underpants” breaks from its regular animation aesthetic and gives us the comic book world of George and Harold or, in some other way, alters the look and feel of the film. These are also some of the most disappointing moments in the movie because they prove that the David Soren directed affair can be smarter than it is the rest of the time. These are the moments when “Captain Underpants” is prepared to break the fourth wall and provide a deeper understandings of the shenanigans which abound, and they are where Nicholas Stoller’s script (based on the novels by Dav Pilkey) sings.
All too soon, however, it’s back to the fart jokes and the rest of the movie plays like a child’s fever dream, complete with school as prison, cafeteria leftovers as toxic waste, and an evil toilet. Clearly children who are still in the middle of potty training may have difficulties with this movie, but so will adults. This latter group will find themselves frustrated that the intelligence the film sometimes exhibits too often ends up circling the drain.
More than anything, “Captain Underpants” feels like a lost opportunity, with Hart, Middleditch, Helms, Nick Kroll (Poopypants), Kristen Schaal (the lunch lady, Edith), and Jordan Peele (another student, Melvin) voicing their characters with infectious enthusiasm. Particularly great is a moment when George and Harold break into song about how great Saturday can be. Truly, the cast does everything it can to pull the audience back in even as the plot and gags fall flat over and over again. It is, however, too big a task for them to accomplish and “Captain Underpants” winds up disappointing anyone who doesn’t laugh at the word “diarrhea.”
Rereading the above and trying to figure out where it all goes wrong, I keep coming back to one thing – plot and there not being enough of it. The notion of hypnotizing a school principal into believing his a foolish superhero named Captain Underpants is funny; and school as prison can work, as can an evil teacher who is trying to take over the world, but that is where this movie begins and ends. All of the above could be taken care of in one 30 minute television episode, but instead it’s stretched into a 90 minute film. There just isn’t enough to sustain that even if the world that’s been created feels like one worth exploring.
Purely as an aside, I can’t help but wonder what this movie looks like as a Netflix series or a Saturday morning cartoon. George and Harold’s madcap comics, the nonstop pep of it all, and the repeated trips to the same well of humor feel perfectly situated to return on a shorter, but more regular, basis.
That, however, is not what we have here. We have a movie that has great pieces to it, but which winds up like an old pair of underpants where the elastic has long since stopped working – there’s just no supporting framework for whatever is inside.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox