In what amounts to the equivalent of a 90-minute sugar rush, Dav Pilkey’s wacky kids’ superhero book series makes the leap to the big screen with its trademark potty humor and offbeat zaniness very much intact in the computer-animated Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Unfortunately that’s about all it amounts to — in the absence of a sturdier storyline and more dimensional characters, the manic, rapid-fire delivery, while yielding some well-deserved laughs, proves more exhausting than inspired.
The end result is still admittedly less painful than a wedgie and should give Fox a payoff closer in line to The Boss Baby than its recent Wimpy Kid disappointment. It also marks the last DreamWorks Animation title to be released through Fox (the first was 2013’s The Croods) as a result of the division’s 2016 acquisition by Universal.
For those unfamiliar with the any of the 12 titles in Pilkey’s popular series, the saga concerns the misadventures of George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), a pair of trouble-making fourth-graders at Jerome Horwitz Elementary who prefer hanging out in their treehouse creating Captain Underpants comic books.
When their sour principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), finally catches the serial pranksters in the act and threatens to put the lifelong pals into two separate classes, George hypnotizes Krupp into believing he is the real-life incarnation of the tighty-whitey-wearing superhero. His dim but enthusiastic alter ego has his work cut out for him with the arrival of Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants (Nick Kroll), the incoming school history teacher hailing from New Swissland, who actually happens to be a vengeful mad scientist with a secret evil agenda.
Cobbling together aspects from several books in the series, the screenplay by Nicholas Stoller (last year’s Storks) makes for a zippy origin story, while DreamWorks veteran David Soren, who previously directed the studio’s Turbo, propels the action into overdrive, gleefully breaking down the fourth wall by goosing the CGI with 2D animation, Flip-O-Rama flip-book sequences and even sock puppet renderings.
What’s missing is anything resembling heart and soul, the sort of stuff that makes the audience relate in some way to the characters and their predicament. Despite being the main attraction, George and Harold frequently get lost in all the commotion, leaving Hart and Middleditch with little around which to work their limber voices.
Faring better are Kroll and on-a-roll Jordan Peele, who plays the nerdy part of red-headed brainiac Melvin Sneedly. Keeping in the goofy groove is the soundtrack, which includes a suitably anthemic “Weird Al” Yankovic-performed theme song and energetic covers of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” and Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” by Adam Lambert and Lil Yachty, respectively. While inspired choices, like the production as a whole, they ultimately leave one feeling effectively pooped.
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