Tra la la!
To young fans of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants book series, that hark of arrival is as familiar and welcome a caw as ‘to the Batmobile’ might be to their parents. The novels have sold more than 70m copies the world over since launching in 1997, with the series concluding at book twelve only two years ago. Given their success – Captain Underpants has been translated into over 20 languages – it’s perhaps surprising that it’s take this long for a film to materialise.
For those unfamiliar with this unlikeliest of superheroes, The Adventures of Captain Underpants revolve around the exploits of George and Harold, best friends who spend their free time pranking teachers and creating comic book stories about the – ‘more powerful than boxer shorts’ – Captain Underpants (George writes, Harold illustrates). At school is the cantankerous and unfriendly Mr. Krupp, George and Harold’s Principal, who is hell-bent on breaking the class clowns up.
In Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, when Mr. Krupp manages to catch the duo breaking school rules on camera at a Saturday Science Fair, their friendship comes under threat. With only one option remaining, George and Harold promptly hypnotise Mr. Krupp with a cereal box ‘hypno-ring’ and inadvertently give him the semi-permanent alter-ego of their very own Captain Underpants. As the front cover of Pilkey’s ‘First Epic Novel’ promises, ahead are: ‘Action’, ‘Thrills’ and ‘Laffs.’
Translating the story from page to screen is Nicholas Stoller, a man no stranger to fun family fare having penned too The Muppets and last year’s Storks. Stoller does well here to capture Pilkey’s knack for grasping the workings of a child’s imagination. George and Harold’s adventures begin in their delightfully Dennis the Menace treehouse, with the pair having united as friends in the first grade over a shared appreciation of the comedy value of the planet Uranus.
Equally well adapted is the illustrative style of the book series – there’s even time along the way for a fun nod to the popular flip books included in the books. A touch Peanuts Movie, this animation is of the bright and plastically perky fashion. Essentially, it looks exactly as you’d imagine the book’s illustrations would in three dimensions. This is world in which the trees all look rather like micro-cosmic explosions of the sugar puff cereals from the box in which George and Harold found their hypno-ring.
Behind the characters in David Soren’s adaptation, The Hangover trilogy’s Ed Helms voices the Mr. Krupp and his titular alter ego, whilst Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch play George and Harold. Because all good superheroes (although, Captain Underpants is hardly that) must have a foe, Nick Kroll rounds off the principals as Professor Poopypants, a scientist plotting to rid the world of laughter – a result of the chip on his shoulder formed by his…ahem…somewhat comical name.
Unsurprisingly, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Adventure is very, very silly. It’s wildly out of control and – for grown-ups at least – almost exhausting to experience. That said, the ‘laffs’ come thick and fast and the whole thing is, often, undeniably hilarious. Watch out particularly for a delirious whoopee cushion rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. To quote Harold, ‘Is it okay that I’m loving this?!’
More surprisingly, the film is also, oddly, really quite charming. Behind the briefs is an honest and utterly endearing celebration of the value of true friendship. That, and the real message of the film: ‘Never underestimate the power of underpants.’ Naturally.