Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by David Soren
Captain Underpants was a big staple of my elementary school years and while I eventually grew out the series after the first five or six books, I still have good memories (albeit vague ones) about those stories and the characters. Now at one point, even as recent as say 2010, I would have lost my freaking MIND over the idea of a Captain Underpants movie, but with this being made so later after I dropped off of the series coupled with the relatively bare bones marketing I saw for it, my expectations are somewhat tempered going into it even though I would love nothing more than for this series to get a new lease on life. Does Captain Underpants manage to be a better super hero movie than even the MCU can put out, or are we doomed for another DCCU style monstrosity of epic proportions!? Or maybe it could be the middle ground of the better X-Men movies… I guess. Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the adventures of George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch). George is the kid with the tie and the flat-top while Harold is the one with the T-shirt and bad haircut. You should probably remember that. Anyway, they’re two good natured troublemakers at Jerome Horwitz Elementary School who always manage to peeve of their principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) with their incessant pranking and never ending supply of self-published comic books that they distribute at the school. Their most popular by far is the Captain Underpants series which involves a super hero who wears nothing but underwear and a cape since most superheroes look like they’re wearing their underwear. I don’t know how true that is anymore as they mostly wear leather and body armor now, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that George and Harold’s latest prank was the final straw to break the camel’s back and Mr. Krupp is going to separate them once and for all by putting them in different classes. In a last ditch effort to save their friendship, George uses his Hypno-Ring to hypnotize Mr. Krupp before he can sign the papers. Not only that, but just for the heck of it they ALSO convince him that he’s Captain Underpants as well which is funny at first but proves to be quite a burden as he turns into the hero anytime he hears someone snap their fingers and will only turn back once he’s bene splashed by water (it’s unclear if other substances will work in water’s stead). Oh, and there’s a mad scientist somewhere in this too who becomes a science teacher or something. Will Harold and George learn a lesson about their pranking ways now that they have to keep Mr. Krupp from hurting himself or worse? Eh, probably not, but will Captain Underpants manage to be an ACTUAL hero instead of just a guy running around in his tighty-whities? Most importantly though, is this just as good as the books I remember reading in second grade!?
I seriously don’t know what I’m feeling after watching this movie. At first, I was feeling somewhat melancholic as if my old age had finally caught up to me and I had lost my enjoyment of something that meant a lot to me as a kid. IS THIS WHAT BEING A GROWN UP IS LIKE!? DO NOT WANT!! I just couldn’t get into the damn thing for the life of me! Sure, the art style was as accurate to Dav Pilkey’s artwork as The Peanuts Movie was to Schulz and I caught some of the references to the source material, but so little of it seemed to click together for me. Is it a bad movie? I DON’T KNOW!! I have no idea if I’m holding this unfairly to my own rose tinted nostalgia or if this is legitimately unimpressive cash in on an old license! It’s not like we haven’t gotten plenty of the latter since the advent of CG animation, but I also don’t want to be “that guy” who craps on what the kids are into and constantly telling them the older stuff was way better when it probably wasn’t!!
So what did I do? I went back and reread the first four novels which are the ones the movie is mainly pulling from (even though they skip three for the most part), and… yeah, I’m starting to lean towards the movie just being a mediocre adaptation. Now you can certainly still argue that I’m tying myself too much to nostalgia which is PROBABLY a fair argument, but even reading them TODAY there’s a lot of really great stuff to gleam from them. Harold and George are legitimate troublemakers whose pranks can sometimes be as cruel as they are funny yet they still manage to remain likable. Mr. Krupp, despite never having to outright say it or even hint it, is pretty compelling as a beleaguered and completely exhausted authority figure who never gets a break from the shenanigans of these two; opting to cope with all this by being gleefully sadistic at times. It’s even pretty subversive with a ton of fourth wall breaking (from the titles of the chapters to shortcuts the writer uses to convey certain events) and will occasionally indulge in some SLIGHTLY adult humor like when they almost named a giant toilet fighting robot The Urinator before recanting due to them not being able to get away with it in a children’s book. All of these ideas are IN the movie… but it’s also NOT in the movie. It never feels authentic like the books did which I KNOW must sound like the most pretentious bullshit imaginable, but maybe I can explain it another way. Remember how good that adaptation of Louis Sachar’s Holes was? To me, it really did feel like the book that I had read was brought to life on the big screen and is one of the most incredibly watchable family films from that period of time. In comparison, does anyone remember when Sachar’s OTHER book series (possibly even just as popular if not more so) Wayside School was turned into an animated series? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I barely even remember the damn thing; mostly because I never got the sense that it was a TRUE adaptation of the books I had read. Despite having the giant school (thirty stories with one classroom on each floor) and some of the same names, it just didn’t feel like Sachar’s work. Captain Underpants falls frustratingly into some sort of uncanny valley RIGHT in the middle. I recognize the art style, I can see where they took stuff specifically from the books and adapted them quite well, but it still never felt like Captain Underpants!
Now after sitting down and TRYING to come up with a reason why this didn’t work for me (aside from the icy hand of death inching ever closer and therefore ruining my ability to enjoy things in life) I would say that the two major problems in this movie are pacing and structure. With ANY adaptation to film, there needs to be changes of some sort as the way a book is read, a TV show is watched, or a toy is played with are MUCH different than how we experience film. For a lot of adaptations, especially for a property meant to be experienced serially, they fall into a trap of trying to turn three or four adventures into a single story arc which leads to a muddled and overstuffed film (*cough* The Last Airbender *cough*) and that’s where Captain Underpants ends up. There’s no breathing room between the highs and lows of the story as one event flows directly into another which makes it hard for any of it to sink in. Harold and George turning Mr. Krupp into Captain Underpants is a story unto itself with a very clear lesson at the end where they’re irresponsible behavior leads to them having to be responsible for their Principal whenever he’s forced back into the Captain Underpants persona. The movie tries to stretch this idea across the entire running time, but in doing so it clashes with later story about Professor Poopypants trying to take over the world. The movie also constantly distracts itself with random asides that don’t go anywhere which granted was SOMEWHAT true of the books (FLIP-E-RAMA!!), but in here they don’t really work. There’s one creative moment where they use sock puppets instead of CG animation, but everything else from the constant reuse of the water gag to Harold and George going down the halls with Oh Yeah by Yello playing in the background (seriously, who the hell even uses that song anymore?) feel like half thought out padding for a movie that MIGHT have worked better if they stuck closer to the structure of the books, as in a series of adventures rather than trying to develop three of them simultaneously.
Now as far as how they adapted the characters from the books, you’re mileage is gonna vary but here are some things to note if you are a fan of the series. The movie has this problem of trying WAY too hard without getting even half as much right as the books. The books effortlessly got us to like George and Harold through rather simple means. They were fun loving despite being really big troublemakers. The movie tries to play them off like they’re some sort of heroes as the school has gone from a regular (as in boring) institution of learning to a straight up child prison that the movie presents without any sense of subtly. So we go from these kids being kids to them being some sort of freedom fighters for fun and laughter in an oppressive environment, and it’s a lot of effort for frankly very little reward because I found the two of them to be WAY more unlikable in this movie than the books. There was always a bit of a disturbing subtext to the books in that they’ve potentially ruined Mr. Krupp’s life as he’s basically living with a split personality without even knowing about it (or getting any sort of help for it), but the books are lighthearted enough in tone so as to make that not particularly pronounced. Here though, presumably in effort to stretch this out to ninety minutes, there’s a lot more focus on the two of them straight up messing with Krupp and his Captain Underpants persona (unlike in the books where they realized it wasn’t a good thing to keep having him switch) and it was simply unpleasant to sit through. I won’t go into the same detail with Mr. Krupp and Professor Poopypants, but they are similarly affected by the movie’s attempt at expanding their characters in that they’re much less likable and sympathetic here than they were in the books almost entirely due to revisions in the material and added scenes that only made it harder for them to endear themselves to me; no matter how hard they’re pushing a romantic subplot with Krupp and the Lunch Lady (no, not one of the Lunch Ladies from the books).
Look, even with my own nostalgic googles on for the original movies, I can recognize when a movie is having trouble maintaining focus and this is a pretty serious example of such. Maybe kids will find the humor to be much more satisfying than I did and maybe other fans of the series will enjoy the way they’ve updated the characters for this film. I ended up not liking a lot of this, but even with that I still found some good stuff in here that keeps me from outright condemning it. It’s probably not worth seeing in the theaters (even if the art is accurate, it doesn’t look THAT good that it needs to be experienced on the big screen), but when Netflix inevitably gets this movie on its service, it’ll be worth checking out there. Heck, with Netflix’s cozy relationship with DreamWorks, we might even get an animated series out of this rather than another sequel, and frankly I think that would work out a lot better than trying retrofit the books into a tradition ninety minute feature.