Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie – Is it really epic?

If you have kids, whether or not they’re a fan of the Captain Underpants books, you’re probably going to find yourself having to see the Captain Underpants movie this school holidays. Or perhaps you’re wondering if it’s just plain a good movie to see, considering the recent history of things like Pixar movies that have been entertaining for adults too. Well, I’ve bravely sacrificed myself so you don’t have to, and watched the movie in the greasy clutches of popcorn and a raucously laughing child. I can tell you a nine-year-old thinks it’s epic, but you’re not here for their report on it.

Lucky you; my report is good. I wouldn’t recommend it as something to see just for the fun of it unless you really like jokes about being named ‘Poopypants’, but you probably won’t be left wanting to claw your eyes out if you’re taking kids to see it. The plot is a loose adaption of elements from the first couple of books mostly, weaving a couple of antagonists into it for a slightly more complicated storyline. It means the pacing feels hectic, but it still all fits together well – a pleasant surprise when I’d expected it to look more like a couple of different stories mashed together – a common trap for adaptions of children’s series where individual books aren’t long enough for a movie. Props to writers Nicholas Stoller and David Soren (also the director), both of whom have some experience with kid’s movies (but not a whole lot), for doing the right mix of cherry-picking parts from the books and changing other things to make a plotline that only loses you if you doze off part way through (thanks to that manic pace.)

The ads give you the basics of the plot – two prankster kids avoid punishment by using a magic hypnotising ring to make their principal think he’s the superhero they make comics about: Captain Underpants. A sinister mad scientist infiltrates the school, and they must save the day! Also some sort of giant robot toilet is involved; I can’t give away more of the plot than that without risking spoilers. The concept of using hypnotism as a convenient magic device to turn one person into two with no knowledge of each other has been used for ages (1955’s The Court Jester is the earliest one to come to my mind) and doesn’t seem particularly original or realistic. But you can forgive kid’s entertainment for using cliché tropes these days. Don’t forget the standard trope of kids getting control over the adults, but learning a lesson at the end. There’s toilet humour, but unfortunately that’s what a lot of its target audience loves. I had to explain to my kid why the name of the planet Uranus is considered funny, while also admitting to myself that kids are supposed to know these words anyway.

Definitely glad he’s blob shaped when animation can’t hide that his groin is head height for kids    (Dreamworks Animation)

There are only five major characters in this movie, with most of the rest being background characters, and I would have said the voice acting was perfectly adequate until I found out who some of the voice actors were and realised how unrecognisable they’d been. I thought I could recognise Kirsten Schaal’s (BoJack Horseman, Gravity Falls) distinctive voice anywhere, but her supporting role was surprisingly subdued to suit her character. And discovering the humourless ginger nerd kid Melvin was voiced by Jordan Peele (The Daily Show, Key and Peele) resulted in the only sensible reaction of “Whaaaaaaaat?!” The three mains of George, Harold, and the Captain himself are voiced by Kevin Hart (The Secret Life of Pets, Central Intelligence), Thomas Middleditch (Kong: Skull Island), and Ed Helms (The Office) respectively, and are all solid performances, with the mad scientist voiced by Nick Kroll (Sing, Sausage Party) appropriately camped up with vague East-European accent. Considering all of these performers have appeared in the same movie or show as at least one other performer here at some point in their careers, it feels like a network of friends hooking each other up with parts after going “Hey, I know someone who’d be perfect for this!” and they do all fit right in, with no-one glaring out as a “We got this actor because you’ll immediately recognise them and that’s it!” part.

Gotta love someone who admits their job title for the last few years was ‘Revenge Seeker’ (Dreamworks Animation)

You can see for yourself how the animation style looks – like most CG animated adaption of 2D cartoons and comics, it keeps the shapes of the characters, and current technology used by a major production house (Dreamworks) means the animation is slick and textures smooth. I’ve seen it compared to the animation of The Peanuts Movie, though with different base shapes. Luckily, Captain Underpants is shaped more like Grimace than a human, and I swear his underpants cover a full third of his body area. Four other animation styles are incorporated in intro/cut-away scenes, mixing it up in a charming way. I loved when little comic-style visuals were occasionally used like surprise or anger lines around Principal Krupp’s head, a nod to its comic symbolism. There’s not a lot of violence involved, except where Captain Underpants fights the giant robot toilet, and it’s obviously cartoony (his shape seems to have inspired a KungFu Panda-like ability to bounce off injury). However, there is a scene where he punches a mime in the mistaken belief that they’re actually trapped, and parents might feel obliged to tell their kid “Don’t do that” if you’re worried your kid is going to try and punch a street performer (mine did decide to wear underpants and a cape afterwards, after all).

Depending on your tolerance for kid’s movies and complete lack of subtlety, you might be bored to tears by this movie or you might love it. But my opinion is to grudgingly admit the writing is overall good, even though it leans on some stupid movie clichés, and the visual work is good. The ads never even hinted at the scene that would be my favourite, so there’s surprises in store. It packs a lot into its fast-paced plot, and includes a whoopee cushion symphony, but you’ll probably laugh at some point. Kids will love it. Heads up about the good music too – Weird Al Yankovic does the theme song, and over the end credits is an unapologetically bro-mantic song about loving your best friend, which was completely charming (A Friend Like You, sung by Andy Grammer). I almost guarantee there’ll be sequels in the future (considering there’s about twelve books in the series so far).

Verdict: Actually not terrible, but brace yourself for potty humour. I laughed a lot.

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