So apparently there’s this series of books that’s all the rage; about these kids named Harold and George, who use a hypnosis ring to convince their pain-in-the-ass teacher Mr. Krupp that he’s actually a superhero they’ve created called, yes, Captain Underpants. The ubiquitous crusader, stripped down to his Fruit of the Looms and wearing naught but a red cape around his otherwise hairless and naked body, looks like a giant, cancerous testicle. I’d be more than happy to admit that’s just me seeing subtext and dragging it kicking and screaming to the surface, if not for the series’ preoccupation with poo, piss, rectums, toilets, snot, and every other disgusting bodily fluid, secretion, or explosive expulsion imaginable. And hey, look: now there’s a movie, too – and what’s more, it too contains all the same fart jokes and diarrheic preoccupation, magnified by the subversive enhancement of computer animation and surround sound! Now you too can pay to sit through a fifth grader’s idea of humor.
And it just so happens to be one of the most genuinely entertaining films released this year.
“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is a “family film” in the truest sense. Parents and their kids can sit side-by-side and be disgusting with one another, laughing at immature things we grow up and convince ourselves aren’t hilarious. Farts? Still funny! It’s boy-oriented humor, by which I mean it lacks any sense of pretension. Though whether or not girls and their moms experience the same allergic reaction to this that they have to something like “The Three Stooges” remains to be seen. Women have more cultured tastes, after all.
Keep in mind that it’s not really that gross. It’s just insanely juvenile, which is perfect, being that it’s meant for juvenile audiences, both young and old. To wit: our grade school heroes George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) — the writer and artist of homemade comic books, respectively — must direct the delusional and relentlessly corny behavior of Krupp/Underpants (Ed Helms) in order to defeat a villain called… wait for it… Professor PeePee Poopypants (Nick Kroll). His name is “Poopypants,” folks. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
Beyond the fact that this often plays like a kinder, gentler version of “South Park,” from the scatological humor to the pop culture references, there’s the welcome decision to avoid the annoying and utterly distracting tendency to cast recognizable network television talent in key voice roles. No Tim Allen; no “Guy From Coach.” Maybe you find Dory funny; all I hear is Ellen DeGeneres. She isn’t even trying; she’s just Ellen DeGeneres playing Ellen DeGeneres, except she looks like a fish. “Captain Underpants” goes in the other direction; Hart and Helms are the biggest names in the cast, and both avoid their usual theatrics and simply settle into the characters. If you want to talk out-of-the-box casting, our heroes’ secondary nemesis, Melvin, is played by Jordan Peele. Playing a white kid. Yeah, that Jordan Peele.
The conceit of author Dav Pilkey’s children’s’ series is that the adventures are told in comic book form, ostensibly lifted straight from George and Harold’s own self-published work. The film takes this concept and hyper-charges it, becoming at times a motion comic cannibalizing the origin stories of characters like Superman while tossing in bits and pieces of “The Lord of the Rings.” Any kid who ever tried his hand at creative writing, or even just acted out elaborate, reductive fantasies with their action figures, will immediately recognize both the tropes of genre convention, as well as the inherent lunacy of a grade-schooler’s imagination when fueled by a steady diet of TV, movies, video games, and comic books. The absence of life experience leads to an absurd interpretation of it.
That’s what really makes “Captain Underpants” so entertaining. It’s speaking to the kids on their own level, while reminding their parents where they come from. It extends beyond mere cultural nostalgia, reminding us that platonic (and affectionate) friendship between children of the same sex only becomes “weird” because we grow up and turn into stupid idiots. George and Harold are two boys who are devastated when they’re put in separate classrooms and forced to endure a long-distance relationship. At one point, their reunion is depicted, quasi-romantically, as the two run toward one another across a field of flowers, arms open to embrace. Sounds pretty gay, doesn’t it? Well, you know what? Your Mom’s gay. And she smells like poop, too, you mouth-breathing bag of boogers.
Directed by David Soren
Written by Nicholas Stoller
Rated PG for mild rude humor throughout