I remember back in elementary school, my friends would all read Captain Underpants, a silly comic book series by Dav Pilkey about a superhero who donned nothing but tighty-whities and a red cape. I never actually read the series myself, excepting one time in the school library where I ended up taking a quick peek for myself.
This past Friday, DreamWorks Animation brought the comics to life with Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Directed by David Soren and written by Nicholas Stoller, Captain Underpants manages to tell a competent story with good characters and a surprising variety of laughs.
The movie focuses on two schoolboys, George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who build their friendship on their sense of humor. They hang out in their treehouse, make comics, and plan pranks to the detriment of their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Principal Krupp hates joy and fun, making the school a miserable place for the students. As a result, George and Harold view their pranking as a form of resistance against Krupp’s tyranny for the benefit of their peers. One day though, Krupp manages to get proof of their wrongdoing, and plans to use the evidence to split them apart for good.
In an act of desperation, George hypnotizes Krupp with a cereal ring, and the two friends turn him into the hero they created in their comics: Captain Underpants. Unfortunately, the Captain’s idiocy often puts himself and others in danger. George and Harold now have to keep him under control, balancing his strict authoritarian personality with his carefree idiotic one. At the same time, a new teacher joins the school who has truly villainous plans of his own.
Captain Underpants successfully builds for us a strong central cast of characters. George and Harold share a strong bond, and it honestly reminds me of myself with my own best friend from elementary school. They also firmly root the film on the grounds of a school, and we see things on that scale. As a result, even though the principal’s threat to put them in separate classrooms may seem tame by most villain standards, it still seems major to us, the audience, because it’s a big deal to them. They play lots of pranks, but they ultimately do so because they feel it’s for the greater good. They never seem malicious or cruel in their actions, and in fact show a lot of concern for when things get out of hand.
I also really admired how Krupp himself gets some development too. It would have been easy to have him as a 2-D cutout of a mean principal, which he does start out as. However, as George and Harold try to keep an eye on him, they go to his house expecting a horrifying dungeon of death (which would have fit the movie’s tone), and instead find a boring little hovel. Even when they snoop around, they find only mundane items that honestly reveal a very drab life for Mr. Krupp. Near the end of the movie, the boys actually use their pranking skills to arrange a date between Krupp and the lunchlady he has a crush on, which seems to encourage Krupp to loosen up a bit. Giving the principal a splash of humanity really makes the movie more interesting.
Lastly, there’s the main villain, Professor P, who appears about halfway into the movie. Nick Kroll plays this dastardly over-the-top mad scientist who infiltrates the school to use its supplies for his evil inventions. He wants to rid the world of laughter, as revenge for always being laughed at over his name. What is Professor P’s full name, you may ask? Why, it’s Professor Poopypants.
And it’s at this point that I feel I should talk about the movie’s humor. Now, you might expect a movie titled Captain Underpants to specialize in toilet humor. You would be absolutely one hundred percent correct in that; for instance, you’ll see SnotCo-branded skyscrapers downtown. One segment shows Captain Underpants conducting a children’s chorus as they perform Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with whoopee cushions. It’s pretty much what you’d think. However, there’s plenty of other jokes as well that cater to other tastes.
The film breaks the fourth wall a LOT, and those kinds of jokes are always my favorite. Right from the get-go, George and Harold acknowledge they are in a movie, and it often comes up as they tell the story. For example, about fifteen minutes into the movie, George and Harold score a victory against the principal, and proclaim, “And evil was vanquished forever! Man, that was a short movie. Well, thanks for coming folks!” The credits even begin scrolling up behind them before Kroll cuts the party short.
Some jokes also take a stab at social commentary: when the principal shows off a very expensive security door he’s purchased, he gloats, “It was either that or funding the arts and music department!” Other similarly themed lines appear throughout the movie. Captain Underpants also delves into parody, with the opening mirroring both Star Wars and Superman. The film even pokes fun at itself, with some characters belittling potty humor as “too-lowbrow”. I remember in the theater, I heard grown-ups laughing, I heard kids laughing and I myself laughed quite a bit! Sure, a lot of it was juvenile, but honestly sometimes that’s just what you need.
One element that stood out to me was the animation, the character designs and the backgrounds. Mikros Image did the animation work on the film, and they took a page from The Peanuts Movie by making the world look a lot like the world of a comic book. The illusion comes complete with action lines, which helps the movie feel even more like a fun romp through a world of farce and insanity.
I also have to give big props for incorporating other media into a mainly CGI movie. One segment takes place entirely in 2D animation. Another uses CGI to emulate the fan-favorite Flip-O-Rama flipbooks from the original comics series. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is where George and Harold dread what the future will look like when they’re separated… and the entire fantasy is created using live-action sock puppets. The result is a visually interesting movie that makes it feel even more playful.
I have very few outright complaints with the movie. There is one brief song sequence that just does not feel well-executed at all, but it’s thankfully brief, and we only get the one. Some of the toilet jokes also elicit more groans than laughs.
For the most part though, Captain Underpants is definitely one of the stronger movies from DreamWorks. I’d describe it the same way Mr. Krupp describes the boys’ comics: implausible, juvenile, and filled with the lowest form of wit—potty humor—but still pretty funny. I can’t speak as a fan of the comics, but I imagine it captures the irreverent spirit well. As for a general audience member, I’d recommend it for anyone who likes to laugh and, despite any airs of sophistication and maturity, still privately chuckles at a well-framed toilet joke.
David Gouldthorpe is a rising senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.