Unless you have fond memories of Dav Pilkey’s series of books, it’s entirely possible that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has tra-la-laaa’d its way into cinemas under your radar. Hopefully, you’ll seek it out, because this is the funniest and most creative film to come out of DreamWorks Animation in a long time.
The imaginations fuelling the story are fourth-grade children George and Harold (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch), who break up the monotony of their life at the unusually austere Jerome Horwitz Elementary School by drawing comics, playing pranks and generally trying to make each other laugh.
Their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) hates them for it and on the brink of banishing them to separate classes, an unexpectedly powerful cereal box gift enables the boys to hypnotise him. He comes to believe that he is a character they made up, and strips down to his undies and dons a makeshift cape as Captain Underpants.
Recent DreamWorks outings such as Trolls and The Boss Baby have got experimental with animation techniques, but sort of gone through the motions with their stories and scripts, but Captain Underpants, which is actually the lowest budgeted movie in the studio’s history, is creative all over, from the characters to the techniques.
First and foremost, that comes with the style of animation – it’s the most idiosyncratic CG movie since Blue Sky’s Peanuts movie from a couple of years back, taking inspiration from Pilkey’s illustrations rather than redesigning the characters. But its flights of fancy also take in conventional ‘2D’ animation, a flipbook for when things get ‘too violent and expensive’, and a wildly hilarious sock puppet sequence that represents George and Harold’s worst nightmare.
Also, in acting terms, Hart and Middleditch sound like their performances might have been modulated a little bit in post-production to make them sound more like kids, but they bring an endearing enthusiasm in their performances that you can hardly fake. Elsewhere, Helms is vocally versatile as the cheerful superhero and his miserable alter-ego, while Kristen Schaal, Nick Kroll and Jordan Peele round out a strong cast of comedians.
The script comes from Nicholas Stoller, who wrote and co-directed last year’s similarly berserk animation Storks, and previously co-wrote the last two Muppet movies. We like a lot of his fare for older audiences, which includes Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, but he’s four for four on family-friendly comedies, and we hope he’ll continue to find time for both.
What’s so endearing about the film is that it knows how juvenile it is, and even makes a plot in which the villain doesn’t understand what’s so funny (a character flaw shared with The Muppets‘ Tex Richman) but a sense of humour, however silly, is always enough to save the day. Even if you have a low tolerance for ‘childish’ jokes, we urge you to grit your teeth until the gloriously imaginative third act, which is worth the price of admission alone.
In a world where we’re getting The Boss Baby 2, it would be really lovely if Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie fully lived up to its subtitle. It’s certainly epic enough to fit the bill, but if we could have a film as deliriously inventive as this out of DreamWorks every couple of years, they’d be golden. It deserves to have its own franchise – it charms everything but your pants off.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is in UK cinemas from July 28th.