Regardless of what its name brings up, there is an art to silliness.
Everything from Abbott and Costello arguing about who’s playing what position in baseball to Cleese and Palin slapping each other with fish to Chappelle using an 80s funk legend to slap Charlie Murphy, being silly takes a genuine sense of care, timing, energy, and creativity to make it memorable. This is especially true in animation: you can’t just have goofy drawings bouncing off the walls being loud and obnoxious for a stretch of time. The beauty of a cartoon is the opportunity to create imaginative and comedic scenarios that are nearly-impossible. Being silly is being creative, looking at the norm and trying to break it down through laughter. So if you have a story about two creative kids and their adventures with a fake superhero in tighty-whities, you better bring some effort to make it come to life.
So praise be the based elastic waistbands that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie not only works as a great-looking animated movie, but as an absolute laugh riot for kids and adults. Based on the wildly popular kids book series by Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants’s title character is the creation of elementary school rapscallions George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), best buddies who write comic books about the balding and nearly-bare superhero inbetween pranking their teachers at school. Chief among those victims is Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), their easily-annoyed principle that is hell-bent on destroying Harold and George’s friendship. To keep that from happening, George uses a hypno ring he got out of a cereal box (it’s a cartoon, go with it) to make Krupp think he’s actually the brave but inept Captain Underpants and go around accidentally fighting for justice. But the fun gets real when George and Harold’s new science teacher, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), plans to make people all over the world lose the ability to laugh.
Admittedly, Captain Underpants is incredibly dumb. Fortunately, the movie knows that and wears it with a badge of honor. Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller understands how to set-up and execute fast-paced humor, with credits ranging from raunchy adult comedies like Get Him to the Greek and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising to kid-friendly fare like The Muppets and last year’s Storks. He lets the movie thrive on zany energy and simple but sudden sight gags, including a brief montage of Harold and George’s antics. It’s highlighted best in a scene where the duo snap Mr. Krupp in and out of his Captain Underpants state. It’s the best scene in the movie because it’s so fast and seemingly off the rails, yet packs enough building silliness and rapid-fire jokes that you nearly black-out from laughing so hard. Director David Soren (Turbo) aptly balances kid-friendly humor with more subtle sight gags, even switching up the animation style on occasion to make bits standout more. Despite the movie being made by DreamWorks Animation, it brings to mind bits of Aardman Animation’s fluid stop-motion work in Wallace & Gromit and Blue Sky Studios’ bright and vibrant The Peanuts Movie (certainly not DreamWorks’ recent output of Trolls or The Boss Baby).
All of the comedy in the movie, like most cartoons, depends on the energy of the voice cast and everyone involved here is game. Hart and Middleditch are two wildly different comedic actors, so it’s very impressive to see their great chemistry. They back one another up with a well-pitched punchline for every set-up and don’t merely make whiny noises while playing kids (an especially notable feat for the occasionally overbearing Hart). Helms also works really well playing the crazy grump of Krupp and the boisterous title character. It feels like Helms is explicitly doing a riff on the classic-era superhero serials (especially Superman) extended his vocal bravado with every “Tra La La” he shouts for the character.
The kryptonite to Captain Underpants, aside from being nothing more than a silly Looney Tunes offshoot, is its definition of humor. From the name of its villain and his giant monster (a robot toilet, obviously) to the ultimate reason our heroes defeat him, potty humor seems to be the highest form of comedy in Captain Underpants. One might expect that from the movie’s title, but the way the first half of the movie rolls at such a breakneck pace with such good gags that it practically brings the fun to a dead stop when Captain Underpants conducts a chorus of students in a whoopie cushion chorus. Case in point: when that scene and other uses of potty humor were used in the movie, the group of kids sitting in front of me at my screening were silent.
It’s a shame Captain Underpants had to share the same release date as another superhero film and get buried (the movie has yet to make back its estimated $38 million production budget). Considering summer is a prime season for children’s films, Captain Underpants sets a very high bar right as the season is setting into motion. Sharp, zippy, impressively animated and surprisingly funny, the movie is another welcome bit of levity at the movies and a reminder to Hollywood that kid’s films deserve more craft to them. It’s a lesson that silly doesn’t have to be stupid, but rather inspired.