I never expected to call a movie with a name like Captain Underpants “powerful,” but there’s something undeniably potent going on in this silly little family movie. It’s a film about giant robot toilets and shrink rays, yes, but also a film about importance of childhood imagination. Those afternoons after school you spent drawing pictures, writing stories and bonding with your friends were the moments that mattered, not whatever the heck you happened to watch on tv.
Captain Underpants is that rare superhero movie that doesn’t cater to your youthful nostalgia for escapist entertainment. Instead, David Soren’s film – adapted from the novels by Dan Pilkey – puts front and center all the things you were trying to escape from. The doldrums of rote memorization, the arbitrary rules and regulations of public schools, the teachers who had no idea what to do with you. Our heroes live in an exaggerated world of wonder that is constantly threatened by tedium, and they fight tooth and nail against boredom with all the creativity at their disposal.
George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are fourth grade students with a talent for making comic books and for pranking their mean school principal, Krupp (Ed Helms). When George and Harold’s latest prank finally goes too far, Krupp unleashes his ultimate punishment: putting George and Harold in separate classes, which obviously will destroy their friendship, because long distance relationships never work.
But George’s rather ridiculous plan to hypnotize their principal works better than expected, and soon Krupp is convinced he’s a superhero they created themselves, Captain Underpants, and starts running around the city, endangering himself and others. Hijinks of the highest order ensue, and escalate, and balloon to preposterous proportions when a mad scientist shows up with a plan to rid the world of laughter.
That bad guy’s got a heck of a job ahead of him, because Captain Underpants is a supercharged delivery system for laughter. The good nature of these kids, their endearing overreactions to their plight, and their complete disregard for the fourth wall make Captain Underpants a joy to watch. The innocent animation style and sincere performances create a world that is heightened in every possible way, and yet utterly recognizable. This wasn’t childhood, certainly, but it’s what childhood FELT like.
Kids are going to respond to Captain Underpants and so will adults, but in ways they may not expect. It’s a funny movie by anyone’s standard – if anything, it’s a genuine gutbuster – but Captain Underpants is at its best when the absurd little plot falls by the wayside, and the filmmakers focus on the friendship and imagination of the protagonists. I’d watch a movie about George and Harold pitching comic book ideas back and forth for two hours. They’re that inventive, they’re that likable, and they’re just that amusing, dang it.
Captain Underpants is a very special movie about the childhood experience, and even though there’s a superhero in it, ultimately the film is about very little else. It’s more than enough. Captain Underpants explores the connection between two young people who care deeply about each other and the lengths to which they’re will to go to keep that bond alive forever. It captures the wonder and the oppression of childhood with humor and insight. And it’ll give your memories of happier days a much-needed kick in the pants.
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Top Photo: 20th Century Fox
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.