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Review: Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie (2017)

Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie (2017)

Directed by: David Soren

Premise: An animated film. A pair of imaginative students (voices of Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) create their own superhero comic book. They hypnotize the school principal (voice of Ed Helms) into believing that he is Captain Underpants.

What Works: Few contemporary motion pictures have been as successful as a family film as Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie. There is a distinction to be made between a kid’s picture and family films. A children’s movie is just that; it’s intended for youngsters and plays like the programming on the Nickelodeon cable channel. A family movie is intended to appeal to a cross section of the audience and tells stories that are appropriate and accessible for young viewers while also entertaining the grownup audience. Captain Underpants does that to near perfection. The movie is told from the point of view of two supposedly elementary school students: George and Harold. They are inseparable pals who collaborate on the comic book adventures of Captain Underpants, a Superman-like character. George and Harold also stage pranks on the school staff, especially a dictatorial principal who takes pleasure in snuffing out any sign of creativity or joy in his student’s lives. George and Harold hypnotize the principal and convince him he is Captain Underpants and hilarity ensues. Captain Underpants has an anarchic quality similar to the original Shrek. There’s even a parallel to be made between Captain Underpants and South Park; although this film is decidedly PG and family friendly whereas South Park absolutely is not, they are both animated stories of elementary school students that feature an absurd and anti-establishment tenor. That’s part of what makes Captain Underpants unique as a family film. The picture is shot through with a fun and rebellious spirit and it is subversive in ways that generate a lot of laughs. In a related quality, Captain Underpants also plays upon the superhero origin story. It isn’t quite a parody but the filmmakers utilize elements of the superhero story in ways that are clearly self-aware. The movie is an antidote to self-serious comic book films but it also stands in contrast to industrially processed forms of entertainment. The picture celebrates personality and creativity in ways that are irreconcilable with corporate moviemaking. Captain Underpants is especially impressive in the way it uses different filmmaking techniques. The movie is primarily digital animation but it also makes use of other formats such as hand drawn animation and live action puppetry. The various styles employed in Captain Underpants suit the movie’s anarchic tone.

What Doesn’t: As its very title implies, Captain Underpants is goofy and as is often the case in silly stories, the film lacks stakes. The conflicts of Captain Underpants are often forced; the principal threatens to place George and Harold in separate classrooms and the two boys react as though they will never see each other again. That’s of course ridiculous and the film smartly plays it that way. But this is an example of the way the filmmakers sometimes have to concoct drama in Captain Underpants in order to keep the story going. The dramatic momentum is a bit start-and-stop and Captain Underpants loses its way in the ending. The story cobbles together several different resolutions and the end of the picture feels overstuffed and overextended. If parents have any quibbles with Captain Underpants it may be the reliance on toilet humor but also the film’s mixed message regarding bullying. George and Harold are not bullies but given the current hysteria over that issue, this movie might send some confusing signals to younger viewers.

Bottom Line: Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie is a fun piece of animated entertainment. It is a unique film with remarkable creativity and good humor. The lowbrow humor belies an intelligence that makes it unexpectedly subversive. 

Episode: #653 (June 25, 2017)