Best friends since kindergarten, George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) spend their days creating comic books about a silly superhero named Captain Underpants. Or else at the dreary Jerome Horwitz School playing imaginative pranks on mean principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). Caught in the act thanks to Melvin (Jordan Peele) the class snitch, George and Harold are horrified when Mr. Krupp decides to place them in separate classes. In desperation George uses a 'magic ring' he pulled out of a cereal box to try and hypnotize Mr. Krupp. To everyone's surprise it works. Mr. Krupp flings off his toupee, strips down to his tidy-whities and transforms into a real live, incredibly clueless but kindhearted and enthusiastic Captain Underpants! And that's when the real trouble starts.
You know you are in for a fun time when the movie kicks off with child heroes George and Harold singing the DreamWorks studio intro theme then animating their own opening credits. Based on the popular children's novel series by Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie was a surprise critical success. Especially given the film wears its singular devotion to the most childish silliness imaginable like a badge of honour. Propelled by the spirited direction of David Soren (for whom Captain Underpants marks a significant improvement over the sluggish Turbo (2013) (get it?!)) the film spins an engaging story with a steady hit-rate of charmingly silly gags. Voiced to perfection by a lively and appreciably committed cast. Indeed, as the voice of George, Kevin Hart lands arguably his most ingratiating role. The film also maintains a consistent level of visual invention, blending computer graphics with cut-out and flash animation and even a sequence with live-action sock-puppets.
Nicholas Stoller, the British-born live-action comedy director latterly dabbling in animation as with his equally likable Storks (2016), strikes the right note of exuberant irreverence with a screenplay that routinely breaks the fourth wall without growing obnoxious. Interwoven with the non-stop fart jokes and slapstick antics is a disarmingly sincere ode to the importance of humour when it comes to forging friendships or as a defense against an occasionally harsh and challenging world. The film captures both the sporadic drudgery of the daily school routine and the cathartic joy of childish creativity, cannily crafting George and Harold as altruistic pranksters whose jokes are intended to lift spirits rather than demean. While it would be all too easy to simply pander to a child audience's base love of toilet humour, happily Captain Underpants takes a stab at challenging their preconceived ideas about the grownup world. Rather than settle for a one dimensional villain the plot gradually humanizes Mr. Krupp. George and Harold discover that underneath their big, scary principal likes a sad, lonely man, equally worn out by the daily grind and struggling to express his affection for lunch lady Edith (Kristen Schaal).
While the bulk of the plot has George and Harold trying to keep Mr. Krupp safe from harm while Captain Underpants carries out various daring deeds, the eventual allegory wherein evil science teacher Professor Poopypants' (Nick Kroll) endeavours to rid the world of laughter (on account people keep laughing at his name) is a tad too on the nose. As with many a live-action superhero movie the third act sacrifices thematic consistency for busy spectacle. Luckily the finale gets things back on track with a hilarious gag replacing a predictable climactic battle (that would be too costly to animate!) with a handmade flip-book plus a winning message cleverly tied back to the origin of George and Harold's friendship. Plus a great one-liner about how society undervalues teachers liable to resonate with real-life put-upon Mr. Krupps everywhere.