Joyously juvenile and unapologetically scatological, director David Soren’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie captures the spirit of being an eight-year-old boy about as well as any film ever made. Packed with mirthful pranksterism, a vigorous anti-authoritarian streak, and literal potty humor (the big finale involves an enormous toilet), this animated adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s popular children’s book series is true to the crudeness of its source material, smoothing out some of the rough edges in the author’s sketchy character designs and discursive storytelling style while preserving the books’ relentless unseriousness and anarchic vitality.
Mixing together the plots of several of Pilkey’s books, the film centers on two hyperactive elementary schoolers, George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who write and draw their own comic books. In an effort to avoid punishment for one of their pranks, they hypnotize their cruelly autocratic principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) into thinking that he’s Captain Underpants, the superhero protagonist of their comics. Clad only in tighty whities and a cape, Captain Underpants bounds around the city with enthusiasm and limitless confidence despite his total lack of super powers. He is, though, subject to arbitrary, Gremlins-style rules, as the sound of a finger snap turns him into Captain Underpants and getting wet reverts him to his normal state. One scene in which George and Harold torment Krupp by switching him back and forth in rapid succession is an energetic animation highlight of the film.
Merely stating the full name of Captain Underpants’s mad-scientist antagonist, Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq. (Nick Kroll), highlights the film’s gleefully puerile sense of humor, but it’s executed with such wit, verve, and even inventiveness that it manages to give childish vulgarity a good name. From the Strangelovian accent that Kroll brings to his demented role to the husky-voiced intonation of Kristen Schaal’s lovelorn lunch lady, the voice cast’s comic brio is of a piece with the refreshing playfulness of Soren’s direction. A variety of animation styles is employed throughout, including sock puppetry, line drawings, and Flip-O-Rama (a hallmark of Pilkey’s books, in which a simple animation effect is created by flipping quickly between two similar drawings). Based on Pilkey’s original drawings, the character designs are slightly generic, but Soren renders their simple facial expressions with a litheness that amplifies the comedy.
While heavy on jokes about burping, robots, and whoopee cushions, Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay also manages moments of satirical insight targeting the creativity-deadening effects of America’s under-funded and overly restrictive public schools. Kids march in sullen lockstep, teachers drone on in a dull monotone, and any sense of fun is treated as an affront to adults’ authority. Within this stultifying context, George and Harold emerge as defiant rebels simply by maintaining a sense of humor. They aren’t terribly complex or even particularly well-defined characters, but their friendship is depicted with an admirable sense of balance and an idealistic lack of conflict.
Though it remains resolutely unsentimental to the end, Captain Underpants does manage to achieve one moment that could almost be called touching, and it’s quintessentially true to the cheerfully childish spirit of the film: As they’re being pounded with a ray gun by Professor Poopypants, George and Harold flash back to the moment they became friends, sharing hysterical laughter at their teacher saying the word “Uranus.”