Thursday, June 8, 2017

'Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie' review

When you're a kid, some concepts are so inherently amusing that they're hard to resist. That's certainly the case when it comes to Captain Underpants, the series of novels by author Dav Pilkey that are as silly and juvenile as you would expect. As an elementary school age boy, I devoured those books. Sure, they're stupid and filled with toilet humor, but there's a sharpness and a clever wit to them that you probably wouldn't anticipate from a series based entirely on scatological comedy. When I heard that Dreamworks would be tackling a film adaptation of the books, I was immediately excited. Yes, even as someone who is now a legal adult, I was glad to see that my childhood favorite about an underwear-clad superhero was coming to the big screen.

And I'll say this for Captain Underpants- if I was still in grade school, this would probably be an instant classic It's hysterical, unique, and profoundly stupid, which is pretty much everything that the books represented. Kids are going to absolutely adore this movie, and if it manages to have legs at the box office, this is the kind of franchise that will go on to become a juggernaut for Dreamworks. But as a cynical rising college student, I found a few more flaws with this lovingly absurd superhero comedy. While it manages to elicit quite a few laughs and creates some memorable characters along the way, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (the official title) eventually wears out its welcome, falling short of the subversive, LEGO Movie-esque greatness that it hopes to attain. It's fun, solid entertainment for the whole family, but I doubt it'll find any kind of permanent spot in your brain.

Captain Underpants is the story of George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), two young kids who create comics in their free time as a way of escaping the doldrums of school. Their nightmarish elementary school is run by Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), an authoritarian nut who hates fun and loves to make students suffer. George and Harold, in addition to their love of art and storytelling, are Robin Hood-like figures in their school, prank experts who deliberately disrupt Krupp's regime in the hopes of bringing a little bit of happiness to the lives of their friends and fellow victims. Krupp has an undying hatred for the two students, and one day, he makes an incredibly terrifying threat to separate the two boys and place them in different classes.

Krupp's goal is to end their friendship through forced separation, hoping to finally bring a close to their reign of pranks and mischief. This is the ultimate punishment for two grade school kids, and in a last-ditch attempt to change Krupp's mind, George pulls out a cheap ring meant to hypnotize its victims. Surprisingly, it works, and the boys find that they can do anything they want to their clinically insane principal. In a stroke of genius, George and Harold turn Krupp into the amazing Captain Underpants, a superhero of their own brilliant invention. He has no superpowers- but somehow he thinks that he does. But when the evil Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) comes to execute his evil plan while masquerading as a school teacher, Captain Underpants will be thrust into action and forced to use his special set of skills to save the day.

When I first saw the trailer for Captain Underpants, what immediately caught my eye was the colorful, energetic style that is radically different from anything in modern animation. It's more like a CGI Looney Tunes cartoon than a modern animated film (director David Soren told EW that this was Dreamworks' first real cartoon), and I hope that we see more like this in the future. The retro flair and supercharged energy are the strongest attributes of Captain Underpants, and it helps the film always feel fresh and different. With David Soren in the director's chair and Neighbors filmmaker Nicholas Stoller penning the screenplay, this film has some moments of true hilarity, featuring a broad range of comedic sensibilities that range from extremely sharp satire to the lowest of lowbrow toilet humor. Soren and Stoller perfectly match those two contrasting styles and it works like a charm- for most of the runtime at least.

Captain Underpants also has the benefit of an exceptional voice cast that brings life to several memorable characters. The titular protagonist is oddly the comic relief of the story, but there's a nice emotional core that comes from Krupp's loneliness and anger. George and Harold are likable heroes, and for all of their cleverness and comedic genius, they're undoubtedly children- which is exactly what this story needs them to be. And Professor Poopypants is a straight-up incredible villain, one that manages to be both despicable and sympathetic at the same time. You can empathize with just about every character in Captain Underpants, which isn't exactly something you'd expect from a movie built around toilet humor and other gross-out jokes.

But despite all of its winking references and jokes that only adults will possibly understand, Captain Underpants is unquestionably a movie made for kids. And while it's the perfect film for its target audience, I must admit that it wore on me after a while. The film has a rather short runtime of 89 minutes, but it still manages to feel long, and the frenetic comic spirit grows exhausting after a while. The conclusion is fine, but I would argue that the movie starts stronger than it finishes, leaving little to linger in the mind. It's fun and it's absolutely hilarious at times, but for all of the raves from critics, manage your expectations accordingly.

Captain Underpants is exactly the movie you expect it to be, and while it's probably a bit smarter than those new to the series would anticipate, it's still a typical kids movie through and through. Watching Captain Underpants is like spending time with a 1st grader who has had way too much sugar. Sure, it's fun to watch them run around like a maniac for a while, but after a while, it gets a little grating. You'll probably enjoy Captain Underpants if you feel compelled to check it out, but will you remember that you even saw it in a month's time? Probably not.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Images courtesy of Fox

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