One of this year’s biggest genuine surprises.
20th Century Fox’s animated adventure Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie tells the story of a grouchy principal who turns into the underwear-clad, super-powered invention of his two least favorite students. Based on Dav Pilkey’s children’s books of the same name, this screen adaptation manages to live up to the standards set by its source material.
The film is, basically, a superhero origin story. It follows best friends George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), two overly imaginative kids whose constant pranks have made them an enemy of their school’s principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). When Krupp threatens to separate them permanently, George and Harold accidentally hypnotize him into believing he is actually their dim-witted superhero creation, Captain Underpants.
While the situation originally leads to various fun, tongue-in-cheek antics, George and Harold wind up needing Captain Underpants to save them when a new supervillain, Professor P (Nick Kroll), shows up with the goal of erasing the sense of humor from every living being on the planet.
Captain Underpants has all the components of being a competent superhero origin story, but it succeeds because of the relationship between George and Harold. They’re best friends who grew close to each other thanks to their similar comedic sensibilities, and who help keep the other one afloat through even the most troublesome of times. I went into Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie expecting a lot of things, but it being a legitimately heartwarming story about two friends who find joy in making each other laugh was not one of them.
It also doesn’t hurt the fact that Captain Underpants is one of the funniest movies to hit theaters so far this year. The screenplay by comedy veteran Nicholas Stoller is self-referential, lighthearted, and inventive, finding new ways to make often the same set of jokes work over and over again. Wisely, he makes sure all of the film’s comedy comes from the humanity of the characters, taking the time to establish and flesh out everyone in the film in a way that most animated movies these days don’t.
None of this is to say that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is perfect. It does not reach the emotional levels or intellectual insight that could make it one of the all-time animated greats. The film’s breakneck pacing can sometimes be exhausting, especially in the third act, and there are more than a few unnecessary, irksome animation decisions throughout (such as having some characters’ brains talk to each other) that pushes the absurdity just a bit too far. But even when the film is stretching the believability of its world to its very breaking point, the talents and personalities of its voice cast often help bring the film back from the edge. It’s rare that an adaptation like this is able to capture the same warmth and themes of its source material, but Captain Underpants does and it’s a joy from beginning to end because of it.