To Kill a Mockingbird. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The Return of the King. Cinematic history is littered with Oscar-winning adaptations of timeless literary classics.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie will not be joining that club.
Based on the series of children's novels by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey, the CGI-animated world of Captain Underpants revolves around elementary school best friends George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch). The pals have incredibly creative minds, and their brainpower has two outlets: pranks, and their self-created comic book series about the titular bumbling-idiot-in-tighty-whities superhero, Captain Underpants.
The pranks constantly land them in hot water with their wet-blanket principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), until they use a cereal box ring (activated whenever they snap their fingers) to hypnotize Mr. Krupp into believing he's actually Captain Underpants. While the boys merely revel in the transformation at first, it becomes useful when a new (evil) science teacher (voiced by Nick Kroll) is hired and plots to rid the world of laughter. His name? Professor Poopypants.
That surname should offer an indication of the general humor level on display throughout the movie. While the juvenile bathroom humor will elicit plenty of giggles from the kids, it's one-note. Large parts of the plot center around how the boys can't stop laughing at the mention of the planet Uranus. Again, the movie hinges on Uranus. The physical comedy provided by the clumsy buffoonery of Captain Underpants delivers more consistent chuckles.
Even for a cartoonish universe, things often seem needlessly lazy and over the top. When George and Harold prank their bookish, brown-nosing rival Melvin (Jordan Peele) at the invention fair by rewiring his toilet robot, the malfunction causes it to shoot toilet paper at the students. They instantly turn this into a dance party, where kids are bungee-jumping from the rafters using the toilet paper. It's absurd, rather than absurdist. Occasionally, Captain Underpants manages to be slightly more clever than it needs to be, with little touches like a "Hope Dies Here" plaque on Mr. Krupp's desk, but they're only momentary humorous throwaways.
For some reason, one — and only one — musical number is injected into the mix. Perhaps it's because that tune, "Saturday," about the bliss of the weekend, is frightfully bad. It's hard not to wonder if the filmmakers are trying to make fun of the idea of songs in kids' movies, because it's so awful and has no flow (weirdly, it's written by the singer of the band Cold War Kids). On a more positive note, "Weird Al" Yankovic performs the "Captain Underpants Theme Song" during the credits, so there's some minor musical reward for enduring until the end.
The film's best moments come when tapping into George and Harold's imaginations. Whether it's developing a new storyline for the comic or envisioning doomsday scenarios when Mr. Krupp threatens to split them up into different classes, the pair gets on a roll and takes things to humorous extremes. The film does a great job of capturing these spiraling ideas by drastically switching up the art style. Instead of CGI realms, things suddenly shift to crayon drawings, or even sock-puppet reenactments of the boys' imaginations. It's a fun way to set things apart from their real world.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie never puts in much effort to rise above the baseline of its source material. Getting a bunch of comedy favorites to provide voices only does so much when the lines they're reading are paint-by-numbers potty humor for adolescents. Captain Underpants might fly, but his movie never really gets off the ground. ♦