Given DreamWorks Animation’s track record with adapting children’s books to film (most recently in The Boss Baby), the appealingly silly Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie counts as a pleasant surprise. Translating the kid logic and chunky art style of Dav Pilkey’s popular series into the fineries of digital animation, it tells of a couple of prank-playing fourth-graders, George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who use a plastic ring from a cereal box to hypnotize their tyrannical elementary-school principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into believing that he is the briefs-clad hero of their hand-drawn comic books. A quick snap of the fingers transforms Krupp into a klutzy do-gooder, while a splash of water turns him back into his normal, grumpy self—an idea for which the movie never really finds a use, beyond a trip through a carnival rife with aquatic hazards. But what good does it do to nitpick the character development of a movie that pits a couple of diehard whoopee-cushion enthusiasts and the grown-up they’ve hypnotized into super-heroic Don Quixote-dom against one Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), a scientist who turned evil because no one could sit through his Nobel Prize ceremony with a straight face?
Following Pilkey’s example, director David Soren (Turbo) and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Get Him To The Greek, The Muppets) introduce their own zany and irreverent touches: sequences with traditional animation and live-action sock puppets; split-screen gags; a theme song by “Weird Al” Yankovic; a climax that skips through half of the big Underpants-versus-Poopypants showdown for reasons of time and money; a parody of the foreboding prologue of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings that depicts George’s 3-D Hypno-Ring being “forged from the plastics of Shangdong, China.” But the key difference between this and the manic style of DreamWorks Animation’s better comedies (like Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted or Penguins Of Madagascar) is that jokes are, for once, mostly meant for the target elementary-school-age audience, instead of the parents and adult chaperones they drag along. The studio’s output has been criticized—often rightly—for its formulaic plots and its overreliance on celebrity voices and pop culture references. But in recent years, its animation has become a diverse, cartoonish alternative to the realistic lighting and movement of the Pixar house style. Though it isn’t as visually eclectic as last year’s Kung Fu Panda 3, Captain Underpants is still a minor visual treat, thanks to Soren’s inspired and very effective use of color—most notably the cool-toned blues and purplish magic-hour light sources that make characters pop out of the background.
Captain Underpants’ charm lies in its lighthearted and lightly scatological silliness, so it’s a shame that the movie sometimes overstuffs itself—for instance, with an unnecessary subplot about a tenuous workplace romance between Krupp and the school lunch lady (Kristen Schaal). All the movie really needs is an oblivious hero with a curtain for a cape squaring off against a rampaging, kaiju-sized robo-toilet filled with glowing, toxic green cafeteria sludge—an adversary that Power Rangers somehow never came up with, across its countless iterations. In its most spirited moments, Captain Underpants is smart enough to recognize that being dumb can be its strongest asset. And though the underlying moral about friendship—inevitable in these things—mostly comes across as forced, at least it’s grounded in the enduring power of puerile humor. Telling kids it’s okay to snicker at the “your anus” pronunciation of Uranus beats force-feeding them yet another magical lesson about being yourself any day of the week.