Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Farts. Poop. Butts. Toilets. Pranks involving the former. And a planet with a dirty sounding name.
It’s all the things that make kids (and maybe even some adults) giggle. Like a streaker during a live broadcast, juvenile humor is on full display, zooming around every corner in director David Soren’s CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE. The animated, extremely colorful adventure is adapted by Nicholas Stoller (STORKS) from the hugely popular book series from Dav Pilkey. Aping much of the zany tone of CLOUDY WITH THE CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, but coming across more like a knock-off, it tips the scales more in favor of absurd hilarity than the inherent heart of the story. Though parents will get a few genuine chuckles, the real appeal is for the younger crowd (ages 4-10).
George Beard (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are lifelong best friends whose imaginations frequently get them into trouble. Now in the fourth grade, the young rascals have become legendary within the walls of Jerome Horowitz Elementary School. So much so, their hilarious pranks earned them engraved plaques in the principal’s office. And after years of suffering at these two’s hands, Principal Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms) has had quite enough, thank you. While the kids see their crazy stunts as liberation for their fellow students trapped in the institutional doldrums of the education system, Mr. Krupp sees them as destructive acts that mock him and fellow teachers. But it’s not until a stunt involving their humorless nemesis Walter (voiced by Jordan Peele) and a mechanical toilet does the proverbial sh*t hit the fan (though there are surprisingly none of these jokes made). As Principal Krupp is about to sign the paperwork that separates our dynamic duo, George and Harold hypnotize him, turning him into their greatest comic book creation: the perpetually naked – with exception of a red cape and some crisp, white briefs – superhero “Captain Underpants.” However, as they figure out how to best use Cap’s skills, a new threat appears: Professor Poopypants (voiced by Nick Kroll), who’s bent on revenge.
Despite all the potty talk, gags, and fart sound effects (so many everywhere) populating the picture, the film is rather wholesome when it comes to things like friendship, imagination, sacrifice and empathy – to a certain extent, at least. Walter, who is intelligent but lacks the ability to comprehend humor, could be considered to be on the autism spectrum if we’re to extrapolate such things. Harold and George aren’t really empathetic towards him – they are more intent on pulling a CLUELESS/ EMMA, trying to set up Principal Krupp with lunch lady Edith (voiced by Kristen Schaal). They do learn a modicum of responsibility through it all, though this message is put on pause for a large chunk of the movie. Professor Poopypants being the butt of the joke (pun intended) is like if Asswipe (“That’s Oz-weep-A”) Johnson became a villain. If we’re really going for SNL deep cut character references, I suppose his trajectory is more akin to Johnny Hildo’s. Anyways, kids won’t get this “upcycling.”
In line with the material’s absurdist nature, the animation styles and techniques change during a few segments. The story is told exclusively through the kids’ perspective, so everything is wildly dramatic. To add a tactile quality, occasional segments switch from CG, to flat marker drawings, to sock puppetry theater, to a flip-book animatic (in the 3rd act, which felt more like an 11th hour cheat than anything). The filmmakers brilliantly play around with color – like the extreme contrasts between the oppressive grays and ominous lighting at school compared to Harold and George’s bubbly, color-filled homes and treehouse. Like those in a comic book panel, expressive lines sporadically emanate from characters, extending their psychological states into physical actions.
Contrivance is the biggest villain entering the picture in the transition between the second and third act, where it’s convenient to the narrative for the kids to lose hope. This is also the point where laughter trickles out and the audience gets antsy. The little three-year-old behind me lost interest at the 30 minute mark, squirmed and talked the entire time, worsening during the third act. I too was losing patience with all the loud noise and gags, starting at the whoopee-cushion-symphony.
Listen, I laughed at the fart joke in a Sony Pictures Classics movie (CHICKEN WITH PLUMS) and I’ll always be to first one to giggle like a 12-year-old when someone makes a fart or poop pun, but I have my limits. This tested my boundaries.
CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE opens on June 2.