I think the final nail in the coffin for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie came around the hour mark. That was the point where I realized that the audience of my screening, made up mostly of families with young children, the toddler audience that makes up this film’s key demographic, wasn’t laughing. Sure, they let out the occasional chuckle, and even a guffaw now and again, but overall, nothing. Now, I understand that not every film is going to be a masterpiece, but they have to at least entertain their key audience, and this film could barely keep the attention of a group of six year olds. And if you can’t make a group of young children laugh with a movie whose villain is named “Professor Poopypants,” then boy, are you in trouble.
George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) have been best friends since kindergarten. Discovering they have similar tastes in humor, the two revel in playing pranks, slacking off, and indulging in their favorite hobby, comic book writing. You see, George has a gift for storytelling and Harold is a talented artist, and together they create their own beloved superhero: Captain Underpants (don’t worry, they explain why in the film’s surprisingly bland script). They soon find their way of life threatened by the school’s dictatorial principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), who desires to split the two troublemakers up for good. When he finally seems ready to accomplish this mission, the boys hypnotize their principal into thinking he is their comic book creation, the Cap himself. At first it’s funny, and then a nuisance, but when the world is threatened by the mad scientist Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), the boys are going to have to force the superhero-and themselves-to step up and save the day.
I think the film’s biggest issue can be seen in where it places the bulk of its humor and creativity. You see, in the comic book/novel series by Dav Pilkey, the fun comes when the plot takes a hard left-turn into the crazy worlds the trio find themselves in. No one cares in the mundane bits of everyday life, they want to see what happens when Captain Underpants fights toilets, or mad scientists, or aliens (but don’t worry, they’re very self-aware about how low their humor is). This is where the jokes come from, and this is where the heart of the story falls. However, here, that isn’t the case. Actually, it’s the opposite. Everything about the real world feels more entertaining than the superhero world. The jokes about the school system are funnier than any of the toilet humor, the script takes itself more lightly, and for some reason, the animation looks better. This is juxtaposed to scenes where a superhero is literally fighting for the fate of the world, and it all falls…flat. The animation looks dull, the actors sound uninterested, and the fight sequences have nothing for the eye to be drawn to. It’s just one sequence after another, slowly meandering along without a sense of joy for the audience to attach to. Hell, even the scenes set in the boys’ imaginations seem more interesting than the fight sequences. They also, oddly, look better than the rest of the film-a statement that sounds odd considering they consist of crudely drawn comic book panels (I actually kind of wish the entire film looked like this) to demonstrate the “Flip-O-Rama” (I’m actually pleased they squeezed that detail into the film from the source material) and a literal sock puppet sequence that makes absolutely no damn sense other than to make kids and adults alike chuckle.
I suppose they had to make these real world sequences more interesting because the plot itself is completely useless. Honestly, I’m not sure how any of this connects together even tangentially. The characters bounce from one location to the next, with little regard for character arcs or plot points necessary. I’ve defended films that lack a plot before, even if I prefer films that have them, but they normally have at least a loose storyline to stick to. This is just a series of excuses to get the movie from one lame joke to the next, to the point that I actually forgot what was supposed to be happening at any given moment. Whenever the characters have some sort of breakthrough emotionally that supposedly tied into the themes of the movie (insofar as a movie titled Captain Underpants can have themes), I was left for several minutes struggling to remember what had come before to see if this plot point had been introduced previously. Normally, the answer I’d come up with is “ehhhh, kinda.” I hate to say it, because I wouldn’t want anything more connected to this movie and ruining a perfectly adequate book series, but I actually think this entire project would work better as a children’s TV show, most likely on Nickelodeon. On television, they could have actually fleshed out these plot points that they want to throw out there and actually tackle them one on one, instead of throwing them all in a blender and calling it a movie. I’m serious-had this been a season-long TV show, with the same types of jokes and details, there may have been some actual promise. Curse that cult of movie making.
It doesn’t help that the voice cast is absolutely wasted here. I’m serious: this is a movie that starred Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, and Kristen Schaal four of the funniest actors working right now, and all three are expendable. They barely register as voice actors, and neither add anything or take away from the roles they play. I guess actor Jordan Peele doesn’t do much better as the nerdy Melvin, but I give him bonus points for the stellar delivery of the line, “Well somebody has to stand up for the Man.” It’s such a dumb line with wonderful social/political context, and Peele delivers it so well. But despite the rest of the cast’s failure to register in their respective roles, I do want to commend Nick Kroll. Kroll is phenomenal in everything he does, and he always finds such crazy, bizarre ways to make his animated villains stand out. He takes such joy in playing a character named Professor Poopypants that I think he must have lobbied for it, and he almost makes the boring superhero moments worthwhile. Adult-based societal jokes rarely ever work in kids’ films, but Kroll makes it work with his frequent jokes about the public school system and over-the-top German accent. Honestly, anything positive you pick up from this review is probably because of his vocal work. Oh, and Lloyd Kaufman and Nancy Travis are in this movie. I literally would not have known that without their names appearing in the end credits.
It may sound glib to say the best part of this movie are the credits, but here that happens to be the case, although not for the reason you’d think. In a spoof of classic superhero theme songs, the studio went out and got “Weird Al” Yankovic to write a Captain Underpants Theme Song. And it’s as wonderful as it sounds. However, all it does is make you realize that the entire movie should have been more like that song: a big, dumb, awesome adventure that embraces its stupidity without saying its embracing its stupidity. Instead, we’re given animation that somehow looks worse than a crude flipbook comic series, jokes that land one in five times, and stale voice acting. It’s not terrible, but it’s not good either. It’s the embodiment of what you’d think the Captain Underpants series is (a dumb, lowbrow attempt at humor that only occasionally gets off the ground) as opposed to what it actually is. And that’s just a shame.