Friday 6 October 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) - Movie Review

Back in 2015, after the monumental disaster of Home, I was about ready to completely write off Dreamworks as an animation company worth any amount of my time. Even compared to films I’ve seen beyond the lists, it still holds up as one of the single worst things ever designed for juvenile consumption. Well, not only did they collectively waste no time in proving my assumptions wrong, they have done in the most unprecedented of ways.
Kung Fu Panda 3, a film from a critically-acclaimed series that both felt short of the franchise’s pedigree and held up alongside its predecessors. Trolls, what should have become a legendary failure of toy-driven marketing in actuality was a simplistic but still amazingly resonant family film with some truly inspired musical decisions. The Boss Baby, a film that I actively had to be convinced was a genuine product and not just a work of Internet parody that went too far, turned out to have a lot of merit to its name and some very relevant things to say, for both kids and adults. 
I would normally question the studio’s decision to bring one of the most wholeheartedly sophomoric children’s books into a feature film with today’s feature, but after that track record, I wouldn’t put it past them.
The plot: Fourth-graders George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are the best of friends, content to just make each other laugh and make comic books together while enduring the tedium of school. However, Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) is determined to end their friendship and hopefully stop the long string of pranks the two have been responsible for. On a desperate whim, they try to hypnotize Krupp and make him think that he is Captain Underpants, a comic book character they created. Of course, now that the hypnosis has been successful, it seems that George and Harold’s troubles have only just begun.

The cast is incredibly solid, which is honestly surprising considering we have my arch-nemesis Kevin Hart in another lead role. As much as I want to joke about how he has finally found his perfect part as a petulant fourth-grader, that would take away from the fact that this is easily his least abrasive performance to date. Him and Middleditch pull off this rather amazing bromance between these two kids, making the state of their friendship feel like it is worth all the tongue-in-cheek grandiosity that it’s given. Helms not only nails the maniacally evil authority figure of Mr. Krupp but also the hapless and almost child-like innocence of the title character, and the scenes where he switches back and forth make for some of the funniest moments in a film that isn’t exactly lacking in that area.
Kroll is given an all-too-familiar vaguely European cartoon villain but credit to him for filling the Professor’s tiny frame with enough bombast to level a city block… or toilet block, perhaps? Eh, I’ll work on it. Peele as the humourless school nerd fits well, causing weird mental feedback loops once it sinks in that this is the same guy who gave us Get Out earlier this year, and Kristen Schaal in a small role as the lunch lady makes for a rather warming presence when the film gets to her subplot with Mr. Krupp.

We’re talking about Dreamworks again, and yet ‘Dreamworks’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind when looking at this animation. Honestly, with how hard it pushes for a 3D cartoon look, it looks more like what Blue Sky Studios did with The Peanuts Movie. Where this gets weirder is that it succeeds for completely opposing reasons. Where Peanuts worked because of its simplicity and grounding, this works because of how adventurous the animation gets. The CGI is very bouncy and lively, making the madcap action scenes that much more engaging, and the use of lighting may sound weird to highlight but the way this film gives shadows and dark colours their space on-screen makes everything really pop.
Not that all of the animation is CGI, though. Some of the scenes are shown in childish chicken-scratch when depicting George and Harold’s comic books, one moment gets shown in flip-book format (in a call-back to the Flip-O-Rama segments in the source books) and even a scene using sock puppets. A mainstream film using sock puppets; is there ever going to be a point where Dreamworks isn’t surprising me at this point? All these moments turn out great on their own, but the different animation styles really lets it sink in that this is told through the eyes of children with a child’s approach to storytelling. You know, in case Captain Underpants himself coming across like a five-year-old wrote him didn’t make that clear enough.

Okay, I jest; I’m probably coming across a lot more cynical than I really intended to on that last one. Maybe this film has a better approach to jokes than I do for a change. Well, it starts out well enough with a very on-the-nose parody of Superman’s origin story for Captain Underpants, along with the in-universe admission that he was created to poke fun at the more spandex-clad superheroes. There’s also some fourth-wall breaking… okay, a lot of fourth-wall breaking from George and Harold, which isn’t exactly the best thing to be found here but it does manage to bolster the children’s story motif so there’s at least a reason for it to be here.
But I’m dancing around the big smelly core of this film: This is all about toilet humour, first and foremost. As much as I’ve railed against other movies using this brand of comedy in the past, I don’t have a problem with the style in and of itself. It’s like any other form of comedy, in that it’s less about the subject matter and more about how it is used. And oh boy, does this film know how to use toilet humour to create truly mesmerising set pieces. Whoopie cushion orchestras, dance sequences with toilet rolls, a giant radioactive robot toilet ready to destroy everything; if there’s an “art” to using toilet humour, then this film has it in spades. Not only that, the film is very snappy with its jokes so nothing sticks around past its welcome and the few running gags get major laughs throughout.

Back when I first started this blog, and made a now-incredibly useless introduction for myself, I mentioned having an “oddball sense of humour”. Nearly three years later and, with the rare exception, that has barely translated into anything of worth in my actual writings. I tend to be picky with what I openly consider funny on this blog, and act a bit snobbish about certain mainstream comedies, but I insist that somewhere in this brain lies an actual sense of humour. This is no doubt a side effect of me taking the activity of film critique way too bloody seriously. So it may come as a bit of a shock to some that this occasionally-pretentious nobody sees a place for all things dumb in comedy. Hell, we all do, even as adults: Name any internet meme that has caught major ground and I’ll show you something that really shouldn’t be nearly as funny as it is. And yet, even with that admission, I can’t help but indulge in it.
What I’m getting at with all this is that the worth of purportedly “juvenile” humour is at the very heart of this film. Original author Dav Pilkey and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller definitely seem to be on the same page when it comes to knowing that even toilet humour has its place in the world. It’s dumb, more than a little silly and might even make you feel guilty for finding it funny in the first place, but that laughter tells more than we’d like to admit (most of us, at least). And quite frankly, knowing how much even a dumb joke can brighten up a person’s day, this film’s stance of laughter as therapeutic and even fundamentally necessary is very commendable. Probably helps that the film also admits that a healthy sense of humour is grown from an ability to laugh at one’s self; self-awareness is one of the few things that can unlock this shrivelled-up piece of coal that once was a heart of mine.

All in all, this film made me feel like a kid again. Between the stellar acting, inventive animation and quick-witted writing, this is a film all about toilet humour and the rear-end-shaped hole in the world that it will always fill. Even as someone who grew up on the original books, the fact that this film managed to translate so much of what made those books so entertaining this seamlessly is frankly astounding. This isn’t so much a family film as it is a chance for even the adults to tap into that childish side of themselves for a little under 90 minutes, an experience that is most definitely worth the time. And just in case that hasn’t sold you on any of this yet, the theme song by Weird Al Yankovic himself will surely do the rest.

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