UK Release Date: 24th July 2017
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: David Soren
Writer: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Thomas Middleditch, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal
Synopsis: When their tyrannical headteacher threatens to move them into separate classes, two troublesome kids hypnotise him into believing he is the lavatorial superhero from comic books they create in their treehouse.
If you’d told me before I walked into the cinema to see Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie that I was about to see the funniest film of 2017 so far, I’d have laughed in your face. That laughter, however, would not have been close to the frequent paroxysms of giggles brought about by the film.
In a year in which Pixar has underwhelmed with Cars 3 and even the minions have struggled for quality over at Illumination, animation also-ran DreamWorks has knocked it right out of the park with this wildly inventive film. The lowest common denominator of crude comedy is married with an unusual visual style and an anarchic sense of glee that few filmmakers can match. It’s like the Citizen Kane of toilet humour and The Godfather for people who find the word Uranus inherently amusing. A crass-terpiece, if you will.
George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are best friends, who spend hours in their treehouse creating the eponymous comic book about a hero dressed only in underwear. After a prank too far against teacher’s pet Melvin (Jordan Peele), the duo are split up by tyrannical headteacher Mr Krupp (Ed Helms). Determined to save their friendship, George hypnotises Mr Krupp into believing he is the real-life Captain Underpants using a ring he got from a cereal box. Just as this takes place, new science teacher Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) starts at the school – and he doesn’t take kindly to people laughing at his name.
If you didn’t have a little chuckle at the name Professor Poopypants in that summary, then Captain Underpants probably isn’t the movie for you. Adapted from Dav Pilkey’s ubiquitous children’s book series by writer Nicholas Stoller (Bad Neighbours), the film is a joyous cacophony of gags almost solely based around underwear and the contents of that underwear. It’s shamelessly silly and entirely willing to embrace its lowbrow tone. The reveal of the villain’s full name is a masterful deployment of lavatorial smut and one scene features what can only be described as an orchestra of flatulence.
At a time when a lot of animation looks very similar, Captain Underpants is pleasingly unusual. Its visuals are deliberately lo-fi – perhaps in an effort to keep the costs down – but this is woven into the story, which frequently veers into other styles from hilarious sock puppets to a hand-drawn flick book introduced via a nice self-referential gag about how expensive action scenes are. This is something DreamWorks has flirted with recently via the psychedelic fantasy sequences in The Boss Baby and it’s a smart idea for how to differentiate it from the competition. The self-referential comedy works too, giving the film a Jump Street vibe. Given the level of toilet humour on show, it could easily have been called 21 Trump Street.
The film is aided by a collection of fun performances, headed up by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch, who are believable as lifelong friends and bring real heft to some of the more emotional climactic scenes. Their repartee is easygoing and relatable as the silly nonsense of childhood buddies, which finds its counterpoint in Ed Helms, bringing real relish to the role of a headteacher so serious and malevolent he makes Professor Snape look like Michael McIntyre. The true highlight, though, is the outrageously accented turn from Nick Kroll as the new science teacher, who is absolutely “not some scary guy with a secret evil agenda”. Kroll is carving out a great villain niche with his work in Sausage Party and The House and Professor Poopypants is his greatest creation by quite some distance.
But the film broadly comes down to its gags, and they come thick and fast. Stoller’s script delivers rapid-fire comedy throughout and never lets Captain Underpants drift for too long without a comedic hook. While the final act of the similarly frenetic The Lego Batman Movie drowned in schmaltz, this doesn’t let up on the laughs while also delivering the emotional pay-off required by the plot. There’s a genuine sense of peril to Professor Poopypants’s plot, but the film finds time even within that terror to laugh at how ridiculously funny that name is. And if you don’t think it’s funny, then you’re every bit as much of a poopypants as he is.
Pop or Poop?
It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not mature, but Captain Underpants is really, really funny – and that’s all it needed to be. There’s an eclectic and entertaining voice cast, as well as a surprising undercurrent of emotion beneath the basic story, but broadly, this is a film that wants to joke about the contents of the toilet bowl. And, as long as it works, there’s frankly nothing wrong with that.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.