What’s the most important thing to you when you’re in your early grade school years and you don’t quite fit in? The friend you find whose misfit level matches yours. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is a raucous and gleeful celebration of such friendships, no matter how dressed up in puerile juvenility this film may be.
Since its initial release, “The Adventures of Captain Underpants” – and the series of sequels it spawned – has been repeatedly attacked for being anti-authoritarian and full of potty humor. To appreciate how truly touching this film is, you have to remember your own childhood and how much you didn’t want to do what your parents or teachers kept telling you to do, especially when it came to having fun. But… what if you could make the author of your pain fight for your side?
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is what I call a “train of thought” film, very similar to the manner in which Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” comic series and its brilliant filmed adaptation by Edgar Wright operate. Both of these properties feature relatively simple stories made randomly extravagant and frenetic by the unbound mind unwilling to bend to structure, form, or rules. They run on a very basic level, featuring a charming type of childhood/preteen writing where “wouldn’t it be cool if” leads to “and THEN…”, leading to even bigger and better ideas and, potentially, more chances to make the writers and their friends laugh.
The mind of “Captain Underpants” author Dav Pilkey is shared immaculately between our two main characters, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), lifelong friends, next-door neighbors, and notorious school pranksters. When they’re not creating mayhem, they’re creating more adventures in their comic book series “Captain Underpants,” the hero of which is a red-caped, briefs-wearing crimefighter who saves the world from human and alien villains alike.
However, as most heroes must, George and Harold have a nemesis: their school principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), who embodies the very definition of what South Park‘s Eric Cartman calls “AUTHORI-TAH!”, squashing fun and any notion his students might have of being happy. Their school is portrayed as a place where souls go to die. Students walk hunched over in lockstep in the rain; classes are taught by droning teachers who have less interest in the subject than the kids; a student is seen stuffing himself in a locker out of despair.
Other parallels between the drudgery of adulthood and the suffocating atmosphere of attending school – a place where people talk at you for hours on end – are drawn and satirized. Of course, something’s gotta be done about that, leading George and Harold to pull their biggest prank yet – turning the nerdy snitch Melvin’s (Jordan Peele) science project into a toilet paper-throwing party machine.
Well, wouldn’t you know it – there’s a camera in Melvin’s science project which catches George and Harold in the act, giving Mr. Krupp the opportunity to do the unthinkable: a forced separation of the terrible twosome, which he hopes will end their friendship. Hoping against hope that a plastic hypnosis ring will have any effect on Mr. Krupp, George wields it… with the surprising result of turning Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants, which gives rise to the majority of this film’s misadventures and laughs.
The action in this film, whether it’s one of George and Harold’s pranks or some hair-raising stunt the super-powerless Captain Underpants attempts, is so overblown that it’s hard trying to define this as an anti-authority film. It’s more a film about two hyperactive, imaginative kids (it’s revealed in the books they both have ADHD) trying to find outlets for themselves amidst a stultifying environment. Parents are notably absent from the proceedings, but not due to neglect or abandonment; they’re just not mentioned, leaving us to envelop ourselves in the craziness of George and Harold’s situation.
We’re totally rooted in these two (and rooting for them) as they’re just two kids trying to have some fun. True, they’re disruptive, but they’re well-liked and well-intentioned. (Yes, I may be the parent who lets my kids get away with everything. I don’t know.) Speaking from the point of view of someone with experiences like theirs, watching this movie was like looking at exaggerated versions of myself back then – someone who wrestled with having to sit still while teachers tried to help me learn. I was the one who got sent to the corner, or out in the hall, or to the principal’s office for doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to be doing… So, of course, I’m gonna like them a lot.
The adults in this film are, indeed, portrayed as buffoons and idiots; those looking to find fault with this film will certainly have this ace up their sleeve. However, seeing as the story is told entirely from George and Harold’s point of view, and after seeing how adults treat them, that they are dimwitted is part of this film’s context. There are no lessons to be learned here other than to treasure friendships and to never lose sight of the passion for creating. You may laugh, you may cringe… but you’ll definitely find yourself randomly singing – in your office, at your school, or in your home – a loud, resounding “Tra-la-LAAAAAA!”
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