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Movie review: Humor in ‘Captain Underpants’ is very elementary

Captain Underpants, voiced by Ed Helms, in Dreamworks Animation’s “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.”
Captain Underpants, voiced by Ed Helms, in Dreamworks Animation’s “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” DreamWorks Animation

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is childish and silly. Of course, anyone of the animated feature film’s target audience who has read one of the 70 million books sold around the world featuring the rotund hero and the elementary students who created him know that already.

The important thing is that while the production never reaches for intellectual grandeur, it is on a very basic level one of the funniest movies of the year. If you still giggle when someone mentions the seventh planet from the son is Uranus, then get ready to blow some laugh snot bubbles. If that planetary joke comes across as crass, then either skip the movie or lighten up a little.

The film follows relatively closely to the series of books written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Director David Soren opts to use a little higher quality computer-generated style of animation, but while it gives the characters more substance, the essence of the characters and stories remain true to the source.

The fruit of the lunacy starts with George and Harold (voiced with great childish glee by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch), two elementary school buddies who spend more time pulling pranks than studying. It’s as if the pair are kindred spirits to Bart Simpson. The big difference is that the two best buds are also the masterminds behind a series of comics featuring Captain Underpants, a hero who fights evil dressed in only his tighty whities.

All of their hijinks and the time spent on creating the comic books have attracted the wrath of the school’s principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). His plan is to split the friends by putting them in different classes, but before he can make the move, George and Harold hypnotize Mr. Krupp into believing he’s Captain Underpants. This proves helpful when the school gets a mad scientist, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), as the new science teacher. It’s only Poopypants’ day job as he has a diabolical scheme to end all laughter that will start with the students at the Jerome Horwitz Elementary School.

Casting Hart was a superb move as he always brings an energy to his acting roles that is on the same level as a third grader eating a bag of sugar for dinner. There have been times when directors have not been able to fully harness that energy and Hart’s performance can be as tiring as trying to keep up with that third grader on a sugar high. Soren gives Hart just enough room to make his voice work without going too far.

Middleditch, Helms and Kroll also turn in solid work but the sparkplug of this production is Hart.

Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay (he wrote the script for the funny “Storks”) never gets more complicated than good vs. evil. That’s in step with the books and keeps the movie from falling into a plot funk such as was the case with “The Boss Baby.” A simple story leaves more time for silly jokes and light-hearted humor. Face it. You can’t have a story with a character named Poppypants and bog it down with intricate plot twists and layered stories.

The way Soren mixes up the animation styles combined with the main characters speaking to the audience makes this less like a typical animated offering and more like an episode of a live-action children’s program such as “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” or “The Weird Al Show.” Part of the Yankovic vibe also comes from the music parody master’s “Underpants” theme song. It’s also very juvenile in lyrics but that fits perfectly with the rest of the movie.

Soren manages to keep the movie’s tempo high while still dealing with all of the origin information necessary for those who don’t have multiple “Captain Underpants” books on their Kindle. The film starts with a bang and ends with a boom with little time to breathe in between. And it has the kind of infectious fun that should prompt fans of the books to want to read more and spark those who have not read any tales to take a look. Any film that can be this much fun and act as a trigger for reading is a double winner.

The film’s lone weakness is that it’s extremely male-dominated with only a few female characters such as the lunch lady. But this is not that different from the books.

That’s only a small problems with what is generally a fun movie experience as long as you’re willing to laugh at schoolyard humor. You will never be able to listen to the “1812 Overture” the same way again. There are a few jokes aimed at adults but the best way to fully appreciate “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” is to sit back and be a kid.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

 1/2

Cast: Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Thomas Middleditch, Jordan Peele.

Director: David Soren

84 minutes.

Rated PG (rude humor)

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