Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Director: David Soren
Writer: Nicholas Stoller, Dav Pilkey
Starring: Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch
A review by Billy Seguire
TRA-LA-LAAAAAAAAAAA! Captain Underpants is a film that knows exactly who it wants to target and goes after that demographic with death-ray laser focus. It’s an unrepentant comedy that revels in its buffoonery, pulling pranks and telling jokes to entertain young kids without the pretense of trying to weigh the comedy down with an overly ambitious dramatic story. Fans of the original books will appreciate the bizarrely freeform storytelling that drives Captain Underpants forward, and newcomers can definitely feel confident that the fun of the film will be delivered as promised. While an absence of meaningful female roles within the film is particularly troubling, Captain Underpants ultimately succeeds as a faithful adaptation of the novels with a positive message at its core that lets pure entertainment take centre stage more often than not.
Before I get into my issues with the film, I simply cannot say enough good things about how fully and lovingly Captain Underpants pushes a love for creativity and unbridled self-expression. More than a simple “be yourself” storyline, the film acts to inspire its audience into creating stories of their own without fear of failure or a need to aspire to a particular level of craft to be successful. As heroes of the story, George and Harold find success in writing and drawing these stories for no one but themselves, giving a purity to their characters that’s particularly heartwarming. As I looked at the shelves filled with comics in the treehouse, I actually found it inspired a particular desire to create more original work myself.
Visually, the film is bright and optimistic, using pastel colours to recreate a dreamscape of reality that only ever exists through the eyes of a child. By contrast, the film creates a dull, oppressive world of the school that makes Harold and George’s rejection of authority seem entirely natural. There are innumerable sequences that cut to comic book representations of the action, with Harold and George flipping the pages or making last minute alterations that emphasise their collaboration on the in-universe comic series and reinforces just how fun it can be to create a universe in your own head.
Ed Helms is perfectly cast in the titular role of Captain Underpants. It’s been clear since The Office that Helms is the perfect mix of bureaucracy and irreverence that makes him perfect for the dual roles of Principal Krupp and our titular Captain. I will have TRA-LA-LAAAAAAAAAAA stuck in my head for weeks to come. Those shouts of triumphant elation were magnificent, and I was endlessly entertained by the full blown over-the-top performance. All the actors in the film do a phenomenal job in their roles, with Nick Kroll in particular giving an especially forceful performance as Professor Poopypants. With an exaggerated German accent and penchant for over-explanation, Disney needs to get Kroll to play Ludwig Von Drake in the new Ducktales series immediately.
The majority of the film is animated in the same style as The Peanuts Movie, using bouncy, computer-animated characters with two-dimensional expressions. The film shines in an innovative hodgepodge of different animation styles. 2D animation, flip-book style drawings, and even sock puppets are used. The latter was incredibly rewarding, being so far removed from the main visual style of the film. While jarring, the energy these sequences inject into the film are just pure fun. It forcibly pushes style over substance, a decent way of adapting the freedom often felt in the novels without compromising the goofy tone that viewers are expecting.
Captain Underpants was also remarkably musically expressive. Songs are sung with bombastic courage of a child, right down to a reinterpretation of the tune that plays during the Dreamworks logo. I loved how many times songs sounded like they were being totally improvised by their performers with surreal, off-the-wall lyrics. It’s the sort of film where of course the end credits song is sung by Weird Al Yankovic. He was mentioned by name in several of the original books and gives the final moments of the film a much needed overdose of silliness to go out on.
Unfortunately, for all of its scenes that triumph in evangelising creativity, Captain Underpants does an extremely poor job of including women in its narrative. One could argue that the dumb humour lends itself to a story for boys, but it’s 2017. Statements like that simply aren’t acceptable. Including a young girl who could join Harold and George in their adventures would only strengthen the message. An animated film aimed at children should have more than an insecure Kristen Schaal pining away for an emotionally distant school principal as its representation. Especially considering its strong theme of creativity, it would have done no harm to include more than just boys in its story.
As an adaptation of the books, the film succeeds in capturing what was unique and memorable about Dav Pilkey’s original novels, though there are a few areas I wish they would have changed. It’s fine for an animated movie to paint characters in broad strokes, though I was surprised at just how little substance there actually was to some of the supporting characters. Harold and George are a great pair, and I was very happy to see Kevin Hart steal the show as the lead. But there was an issue with diversity in the film where I’m not quite sure how it makes me feel. The filmmakers cast Jordan Peele in the role of Melvin, a white character whose lack of humour is at odds with Harold and George. Had they simply changed the character’s skin tone and allowed Peele to play his own race, I may have applauded the inclusion. Problematically, however, Melvin is still a white character in the movie, meaning Peele’s performance is whitewashed for younger viewers, putting it in a weird place in terms of representation. More diversity is never a bad thing, and Peele is one of the most prominent black voices in Hollywood following Get Out, so it’s a move that leaves me conflicted and a little uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially considering how great a job he actually does.
Check It Out. Fans of this franchise will get what they expect from a Captain Underpants film. It captures memorable aspect of the books in an expressive story that pushes creativity and the importance of letting yourself laugh at silly things without feeling guilty about it being dumb. With a cast that’s actually somewhat more diverse than its characters and sorely lacking any major female presence, it won’t surpass your expectations, but there’s enough fun to be had to make kids laugh and shout TRA-LA-LAAAAAAAAAAA for weeks on end after viewing. If it makes any kid pick up a piece of paper and write a comic of their own, even better.