Verdict: Who would’ve guessed that Captain Underpants would be one of the summer’s best movies, both funny and heartwarming to kids and adults alike. Catch this one in theaters.
The Good: Well balanced humor and cute animation add to a surprisingly touching story
It’s hard to imagine a film more likely to fail, and therefore its success more surprising, than Captain Underpants. For the uninitiated, this DreamWorks Animation feature is based on the 90’s children’s novel series that lived or died on its literal potty humor, with its titular hero usually fighting a juvenile joke based villain: snot, farts, toilets, etc. They were a massive success, much to the chagrin of parents everywhere. Whether it was funny or “appropriate” doesn’t really matter; it was a massive success and its chances of being made into a widely distributed high-grossing animated film was likely.
It’s chances of being made into a widely distributed, high-grossing animated film that was also critically acclaimed? Any sane person would’ve lost a lot of money on that bet. Then throw in relative greenhorn David Soren, whose only previous directorial credit is DreamWorks Turbo, and the odds on that bet get even worse. And yet, and yet. Detractors (and parents) now have to eat crow.
This is DreamWorks answer to Blue Sky Studios’ The Peanuts Movie. Its animation style is clean and cute, enjoyable to look and feels true to the source material. There is an adept balance of humor, which maintains the juvenile base of its source but situates it within a nostalgic childhood lens. Kids can laugh at jokes funny to them while adults can chuckle at the familiarity of the drive behind them. It’s a difficult formula to get right and an even harder one to master, yet Captain Underpants does it in spades.
Yet the most surprising thing about it was the emotional depth of its story. It is incredibly earnest, offering up the saddeningly familiar (for kids) or nostalgic (for parents) feeling of a tumultuous childhood friendship. Captain Underpants is simply the vehicle for which the real story: the friendship of George Beard and Harold Hutchins. Watching them develop and revel in the type of friendship that only kids can know is heartwarming; watching that relationship be threatened, especially by self-doubt, is equally heartbreaking.
The Bad: Nothing remotely worth mentioning
Surprising, isn’t it? But true. Many of the “problems” of the film are products of its intended audience, and end up serving more than hurting it. The motivations and conflicts are childish because of course they are. The situations push all limits of believability, and the internal rules are inconsistent, buy why wouldn’t they be? It’s exactly what is set out to be, and it did it perfectly.
The Ugly: There just aren’t that many characters of color in animation, are there?
Adding to its already deep stable of good things, Captain Underpants also has one of the only animated characters of color I could think of. I’m limiting this to American animation, but thinking about the big animated companies, this is a rare-if-ever occurrence. Peanuts had some, and Up has Russell, and that’s about it. It’s a sad state of affairs when, while watching Captain Underpants in the theater, I was distracted in one particular scene by the thought, there are a lot of black kids in this scene! That shouldn’t be something that is so surprising it pulls me out of the film, but there it is. It is meaningful to have a black actor voice a black animated character in a wide-release summer kids film. It’s also meaningful to have a black actor, Jordan Peele, voice a non-black character. Captain Underpants is setting a new bar for animated family films, and hopefully, the industry can follow suit.
Synopsis: “Two fourth-graders (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) hypnotize their principal (Ed Helms) in order to transform him into Captain Underpants, the superhero from their homemade comic book. This animated comedy was adapted from the series of children’s novels by Dav Pilkey, and also features the voices of Jordan Peele, Nick Kroll, and Kristen Schaal.” – Fandango