Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

In the happy-go-lucky words of Captain Underpants: Tra la la!

Kids can rejoice now that the movie adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s children’s book series devoted to pranks and poop jokes is finally here. Some obliging parents will likely take their young’uns to Captain Underpants with some grumbles, however. The shenanigans of its child protagonists George and Harold (played by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch in the film) do teach some pretty offensive values – like disliking school because it’s boring (yet it is) and defying teachers’ authority because they’re cruel (which they sometimes are).

Sure enough, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie features myriad acts of merry mischief and set pieces devoted to the pranksters’ bright ideas of fun. Unfortunately, Dreamworks’ style of animation – which plumps out characters’ flesh in a lazy effort to make them look less two-dimensional – destroys the spectacular visual potential of scenes like a memorable parade of toilet paper rolls and disco lights overtaking the school auditorium. (It’s a sad state of affairs when the boys’ own cartoon sketches, which make several refreshing appearances throughout the film, are only slightly more crude than Dreamworks’ animation.)

The voice actors bear the brunt in bringing these characters to life, including the nasty principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) whose unibrow becomes hairier each time he catches the troublemakers, and mad scientist Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), an Einstein clone trying to wipe out everyone’s sense of humour.

The big grey concrete slab they call Jerome Horwitz Elementary School has depressive students regularly hiding in their lockers to avoid Mr. Krupp, whose misanthropic tyranny is a result of his own loneliness (a cliché, but it’s nice that the film fleshes out the villains). In this universe, school is cruel – a literal prison with no arts programs whatsoever – and George and Harold see it as their public duty to pull pranks on the regular to make their schoolmates smile.

When a cereal-box “hypno ring” allows George and Harold to turn their angry principal into their comic-book creation, “Captain Underpants,” with a mere snap of the fingers, the duo can’t help but take advantage of their magic trick. Eventually, though, they have to rein in their boisterous, dimwitted superhero in order to conquer the nefarious Poopypants.

Poopypants isn’t the only one without a sense of humour. For two decades now, teachers, librarians, and parents have had their own knickers in a twist over the series’ toilet humour, improper spelling, and naughty behaviour. But George and Harold are just the latest in a long line of fictional boy characters acting out of sheer boredom – from Bart Simpson to Huckleberry Finn – and misunderstood by humourless adults who seem to have forgotten their own childhoods.

The zany, over-the-top tone of The First Epic Movie makes it pretty obvious that, like its protagonists, the series doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its self-aware, meta dialogue has an adult tone to appeal to parents and kids alike, and that self-reflexivity gives George and Harold the chance to not only make fun of their principal or nerdy classmate Melvin (Jordan Peele), but to see the absurdity in daily life. In fact, the film’s strongest takeaway message isn’t that kids should defy adults or get into trouble, but that creativity and humour are essential to enjoying childhood.

Duh. Even the grumpiest adults would agree that those two elements are pretty vital to being human.

Originally published in The National Post (June 1, 2017).