In times like these, it can be hard to believe that heroes are really out there. Our real world is full of monstrous tyrants and would-be tyrants desperately clawing at each other over power. Even our fictional paragons continue to disappoint us, as Captain America turns into a Nazi and Wonder Woman asks me to care about Chris Pine. And yet, through all of the cynicism and dread that has come to define modern life, exists one hero. A hero who stands up for laughter. A hero who stands up for creativity. A hero who stands up for hanging out with children in the nude.
Captain Underpants started as a series of children’s books written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey which ran from 1997-2015 about George Beard and Harold Hutchins, two kids who constantly drop prank after prank on their elementary school. When the perpetually angry Principal Krupp threatens to separate the boys from school, they use a cereal box ring to hypnotize Krupp into believing he’s Captain Underpants, a superhero the boys created that looks exactly like Krupp minus his bad toupee. When not managing the fact that they’ve turned their principal into a crazy nude man who thinks he can fly, Harold and George are helping Underpants fight monster toilets, booger boys, and whatever gross monsters you’d find in an elementary school. According to every eight year old ever, it’s the greatest book series in existence.
With Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, director David Soren (who made his feature directorial debut with Turbo in 2013) perfectly captures the vibe of Dav Pilkey’s series. As George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are happy to explain, life at Jerome Horowitz Elementary (a shoutout to Curly from The Three Stooges) is a nightmarish hell resembling prison. There’s no fun, no joy, and multiple students just calmly and morosely shutting themselves into their own lockers. So it’s up to George and Harold to write comics, make jokes, and bring laughter to the otherwise downtrodden student population at Jerome Horowitz. That theme of bringing laughter to others becomes a huge part of the story as the two boys face down fun-hating adults like Principal Krupp and the nefarious Professor P, voiced by Ed Helms and Nick Kroll respectively.
Helms deserves plenty of praise for how deeply he changes the character of Krupp once he gets hypnotized into the Captain. Kroll also deserves praise for straight up using the same voice for Professor P that he uses for the Spotted Ox Hostel. Jordan Peele backs up the adults as principal’s pet Melvin Sneedley who just does not get jokes. Rounding out the cast, Kristen Schaal doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as Edith, a lunchlady with a big crush on Krupp who’s kind of just there to give him some humanity. That kind of sucks in a movie with a predominantly male cast but Schaal brings a memorably shy sweetness to the character.
While everyone in the cast gives their best, especially Ed Helms whose Captain Underpants voice is perfectly boisterous, Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch are unabashedly leading the show as Harold and George. Narrating this entire journey, throwing in asides to the audiences and taking us through animation shifts that highlight their out-there anecdotes and ideas. That can come in the form of the stop motion depicting the two drifting apart as friends or in the form of Flip-O-Rama, the convenient animation style that has always let Captain Underpants undergo epic fights under a tight budget. Captain Underpants: The First Epic movie is a children’s tale told by children and the excited energy that Hart and Middleditch bring to telling that kind of story is contagious. That said, the story is still prone to the kind of leaps in logic that you would within the boys’ own comics. This actually gets lampshaded early on when George and Harold argue over whether Captain Underpants should be raised by dolphins. George thinks it’s dumb but Harold thinks it’s funny, so it sticks. That’s the general rule for Captain Underpants. So even if some later plot developments like the radioactive school lunch leftovers come out of nowhere, it’s all part of the fun.Continued below
As a children’s movie, Captain Underpants excels in being a fun adventure that encourages audiences to have a sense of humor. It’s a great message, not juts for kids but for anyone else who is also wired out during what are likely the end times. Just because we’re all going to die soon doesn’t mean you can’t find “Uranus” funny. And with an amazing cast, stellar animation, and a song by Weird Al, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a great film that will hopefully follow up on its title’s promise.