Fourth-grade friends George Beard and Harold Hutchins are the class clowns in a school in desperate need of some laughter. They also create comic books, the best of which is The Adventures of Captain Underpants. After getting caught pulling a particularly large prank their principal decides to permanently put them in separate classrooms — the death sentence for elementary school friendships. In a fit of desperation, George brings Captain Underpants to life to save the day.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie falls squarely into the crack between “not bad” and “not great”. Stories like that are hard to review. My range of emotions while watching swung only from a slight grin to a mild wince. While it could have been a lot better, for a film grounded in potty humor it most certainly could have been a lot worse! I go to the theatre more than most people, so I consider seeing a movie I don’t immediately think of as a waste of time a win! But overall the best word that comes to mind to describe Captain Underpants is “meh”.

There really is no coherent plot in the traditional sense, with strict building blocks like rising action, climax, etc. The story is more a weird assemblage of things that happen with a fight scene at the end. To be fair, it works pretty well for a movie about a dim-witted, mostly naked superhero. At best, you might get occasionally thrown when the story twists in a direction that wasn’t properly set up. But at worst, you’re left with dangling plot threads that never get answered — like how exactly did George bring Captain Underpants to life?

While stepping away from the traditional plot diagram format may not have always worked, an unconventional storytelling device that did work was the many ways the main characters broke away from the normal flow of the film to tell the story in a different way. For example (and mild spoilers ahead), a flashback told via puppetry, or a prank getting the movie trailer treatment. These quick “breaking of the fourth wall” bits were clever and fun and allowed the animators to showcase their talents in different ways.

Oddly, for a film about class clowns pulling pranks the humor in the film is fairly muted. Maybe the potty-humor crowd might enjoy some of the jokes more than me, but even outside those the film wasn’t a guffaw-fest. Lots of smiles and an occasional soft laugh, sure. Again, and this is a theme here, it wasn’t unfunny either. It’s not that the jokes fell flat, it’s just that they didn’t seem written to get the big laughs. Whether this was intentional, or the jokes just not hitting the way the writers planned, or me just not appreciating them is a question I can’t answer.

While the story can be a bit disjointed, what holds things together is George and Harold. Their relationship is very nicely fleshed out by the writers, and Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch do a great job voicing them. Without the wonderful camaraderie between these two the film would have easily veered into the insufferable category. Even more so than the eponymous Captain Underpants, George and Harold are the real heroes of the movie, not only saving the day but the film as well.

For the most part, I really liked the animation. It fit the tone of the story perfectly and matched the style of the original books as well as could be done. When it was revealed this weekend that the film’s budget was only $38 million I was stunned. While true the action and effects required by the story were probably lower than usual, what they put up on the screen looked a lot more expensive than that. My only issues would be with some of the character designs looking bland and backgrounds that weren’t very detailed. But those are complaints a studio might live with for a $50 million savings.

Bottom line? Maybe I’m not the target audience for a film like this! But even so, I didn’t hate it. And for a film with this much bodily humor, that is impressive. Kids may love it. And adults with kids can feel safe knowing there’s enough here that they won’t be bored, even if they don’t plan to ever watch it again — at least until Captain Underpants 2: The Next Tepid Adventure.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Fox, DreamWorks
June 2, 2017
89 minutes
Rated PG
directed by David Soren