A common complaint about modern children’s movies is that they’re overconcerned with being Secretly Adult, packed with ancient cultural references and highfalutin sentimentality that flies right over all the kids’ heads so as to more emphatically slap all the parents in the face. Anyone over 4 feet tall emerged from Inside Out openly weeping; anyone under 4 feet just thought Anger was funny when he got mad. The result is forlorn dog whistles mixed with oblivious whale song, a family-bonding experience marred by the fact that you’re all not really watching the same thing.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie does not have this problem. No, in this case, the whole fam gets to laugh, as one, at jokes about Uranus.
Directed by David Soren and based on Dav Pilkey’s fearsome empire of children’s books — his name is pronounced Dave and inspired by a botched nametag from when he worked at Pizza Hut — Captain Underpants opened Friday, relatively silent but impressively deadly. It sits comfortably at no. 2, bowing graciously to fellow debut Wonder Woman but besting the $20-million-plus second-week totals for Pirates of the Caribbean: Get Johnny Depp the Fuck Out the Paint Already. Sits comfortably. Number two. Silent but deadly. I want to be clear about this. The villain of this film, a mad scientist voiced by Nick Kroll, is named Professor Poopypants; at one point I wrote down the name "Buttcheek Von Stinklesberg" but forgot why. Maybe my 3-year-old laughed at that; maybe my wife did.
I read Captain Underpants books to my boys (6 and 3) and probably shouldn’t. Full of poop jokes, cartoon violence, catastrophic pranks, and the constant flouting of authority, the series topped the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged/banned books in 2012 and 2013, beating out the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Bluest Eye. Since then, I assume that in a screen-saturated era, parents en masse just resigned themselves to the fact that Any Book is a Good Book now, even one with the title Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies From Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds).
Plot: Two lovably feral fourth-graders named George and Harold (here voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) terrorize their school with crude homemade comics and ornate pranks. To escape the wrath of their evil principal, Mr. Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms), they hypnotize him and convince him he’s Captain Underpants, their greatest superhero creation. Mayhem ensues. (Deep-reading note: In the books those pranks terrorize and enrage George and Harold’s classmates, too, but in the movie that mayhem is the only joyful respite from the prisonlike drudgery of elementary school, and the boys are worshipped as gods à la Ferris Bueller, speaking of ancient cultural references. Kids’ books can have antiheroes; kids’ movies, not so much.)
There is a Fart Symphony; there is a climactic battle with a giant toilet; there is a punched mime. There are a few Adult References — it was definitely my wife who laughed at the reference to the "I Only Like Pizza, Chicken Nuggets, and Buttered Noodles" lobe of the brain — but by and large you’re all just supposed to laugh at Professor Poopypants when he gets hit by three different cars in 10 seconds. I appreciated the shout-out to the books’ infamous Flip-O-Rama feature, where you flip between two pages rapidly to simulate animation; I especially appreciated the acknowledgment that the effect gets old quickly, and results in the book being physically torn in half quicker still.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, stay out of it. I am not trying to persuade you to watch this if you are not parentally obligated: This is a not Boss Baby–esque meme/irony situation. It is simply a relief to encounter a children’s movie that is Dumb on Purpose, and not trying to be Deep in a Subversive Way. The logical endpoint for self-aware movies like Inside Out or even Minions is children’s movies that the parents enjoy more than the kids, but that will only make the kids bored and cranky, which in turn will only make the parents way, way crankier. As the ticket buyer in this situation, all I want is something that isn’t (a) too scary, (b) wildly inappropriate, and/or (c) totally lousy. And I’ll deal with "lousy" if I have to. You get only one kids’ movie of actual quality, like Moana, per year, at best. Otherwise, pander away, please.
Captain Underpants is on the same tier as The Lego Batman Movie (Joker thankfully not too scary). And it’s definitely a cut above Sing (dumb/problematic "Baby Got Back" hook repeated ad nauseum for weeks afterward) or Rock Dog (I thought about buying a $10 theater milkshake, but didn’t). All of those movies, aside from Rock Dog, were big box-office smashes. But more to the point, my kids liked them and I tolerated them. That is the only criteria here. I wish Captain Underpants the best and will gladly sit through the sequel as well. Mostly, I’m just glad this movie opened at no. 2, so the headline worked. The refreshingly modest joy of low (and lowbrow) expectations, modestly met.