With a couple of exceptions, non-Disney mainstream animated films have largely been marginal for the last 4 or 5 years. Even most of the good ones lack originality. Many of them strive too hard to mirror Disney or Pixar’s success, struggling to find their own identity. I always say that the best mainstream animated films find a perfect cross between Toy Story and Shrek. But few, even by Disney themselves, can find the perfect balance nowadays.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie avoids those comparisons entirely. It has a style that’s never been matched or attempted before. It’s a kids film, but it’s crude, filled with bathroom jokes delivered in the smartest way possible–with purpose. Many times this type of humor is thrown into a kids film for a cheap laugh here and there. But the source material, a children’s book series by Dav Pilkey, is evidence that those elements can be present without coming off as desperate.
One potty-humor joke in a movie is deemed immature, but if the whole premise is based on it, you don’t have a right to complain. It lets you know right away what you’re in for. Captain Underpants has all kinds of room–and opportunity–to be full of irreverent humor and non-sequiturs, but instead decides to keep them all cohesive to the premise.
The story is centered on George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch)–two energetic elementary school kids who are always getting into trouble and annoying their teachers. But all they really want to do is laugh–something their principal (Ed Helms) doesn’t like. He’s had enough and threatens to put them in separate classes if they step out of line again.
George and Harold are freaking out. Which is just the type of thing that reminds us that their world is only so big. These simple worries appeal to the child in us all, wishing, in reality, that was still the worst thing life threw at us.
The boys have a long-running comic book superhero they’ve created–Captain Underpants. When they discover they can hypnotize their principal into becoming the hero, they realize their problems may be solved.
I love when films are built around characters who take a relatively small problem so seriously, turning it into an even bigger deal than it needs to be (e.g. Dude, Where’s My Car? or The Stupids). While many call it a product of stupidity, I find it to be impressive storytelling.
Directed by David Soren, who previously helmed another under-the-radar animated movie, Turbo, presents the story with a refreshing sense of originality and non-conformity to the styles of his contemporaries.
A few times, the characters break the fourth wall, adding to the fun storytelling, which at one point includes actual sock puppets. The animation is bright and colorfully appealing. Everything about this film’s aesthetic is attractive.
The jokes are genuinely funny, and the laughs are consistent throughout. One of the things Disney and Pixar have done so well over the years is created a product that makes the line between parent and child obsolete. I think it’s fair to say that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has achieved this as well. Your kids will be laughing, and you will be too–even if you find yourself ashamed to be.