Watching DreamWorks Animation’s approach to their releases has interested me for some time. Unlike their “rivals” at Disney and Pixar (let’s be honest: “rivals” would imply they’re on the same level, which isn’t the case these days), Pixar’s created a slate that balances original stories with well-known, modern(-ish) children’s characters. When it comes to their adaptations, they haven’t always worked (see this year’s The Boss Baby), but Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie surprised me with how well it works for what it wants to be.
George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are fourth graders who are best friends, and the two things they love doing most are playing pranks and creating hand-drawn comic books about the superhero they’ve created, Captain Underpants. When their overbearing principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), threatens to place them in separate classrooms, the boys use a plastic ring from a cereal box to hypnotize him, and they choose to make him think he’s Captain Underpants. They mostly use Captain Underpants for fun, until they’re forced to go up against the new science teacher, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll).
Captain Underpants is, like many DreamWorks films, very lighthearted and made with the intention of making its audience laugh. Where it differs, though, is that the jokes in this film are aimed squarely at the young kids who will make up the target audience. It might sound like something obvious for a children’s film, but DreamWorks (like many other studios) has a tendency to aim their jokes as much at the parents in the audience, if not more so. DreamWorks has had this problem more than most, with their frequent reliance on pop culture. Captain Underpants doesn’t try that. The humor’s lightly scatological, if the character names of Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants didn’t give that away, but in a way that’s at least tolerable. It’s great for young children, and the adults accompanying them will not be dying to whip out their cell phones.