Monday, June 5, 2017

Boxing Briefs:
CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE FIRST EPIC MOVIE



DreamWorks Animation slid back from its recent heights of Pandas, Penguins, and Dragons to wallow in bad habit snark scripts and starry casts for Trolls and The Boss Baby, but now they’ve managed to reignite a fleeting creative spark by getting below the lowest common denominator. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is the sort of entertainment I might’ve enjoyed much more if I was still in the target demographic, but which has a goofy charm that’s easy to appreciate. Directed by Dave Soren (Turbo), the production is a cartoon in the best and most complete sense of the word: completely freed from the bonds of narrative, physical, and logical sense. It’s about two elementary-school-aged boys (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) who crack themselves up writing comic books about their own invented superhero: Captain Underpants, a rotund, egg-shaped doofus who flies around in just a cape and big white briefs. Alas, they don’t keep their creativity on the page, reveling in their status as the school’s best and most prolific pranksters. Running afoul of their tyrannical principal (Ed Helms) one too many times, their last-ditch effort to avoid drastic punishment (separate classrooms, the horror!) accidentally hypnotizes their nemesis. Now he’s running around thinking he’s the real Captain Underpants, and not a moment too soon as a real-life supervillain just got a job as their new science teacher. This is the sort of plot that takes off on its own wacky trajectory and never really connects with any lived experience. It’s just elastic, stretchy fun.

There are absolutely no lessons beyond a healthy esteem for a good sense of humor as screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (in a mode like his superior family entertainments Storks and Muppets Most Wanted instead of his raunchy R-rated comedies like Neighbors) makes a hurtling adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s popular and irreverent kids’ books. True to the nonsense spirit of those imaginatively frivolous volumes, the movie is the most nonstop-juvenile family film in ages. It’s about nothing but bright colors, loud noises, rapid-fire gags, slapstick, silliness, and potty humor. A man leaps through a closed second-story window, leaving behind a hole the shape of his silhouette. Cars slam into pedestrians and leave them unharmed. A brainwashed principal leads the school band in a whoopee cushion rendition of the 1812 Overture (conveniently renamed the 1812 Ofarture). The villain’s evil plot is to rid the world of laughter because he can’t stand hearing it every time he introduces himself. (His name is Professor Poopypants, and it is even funnier when you hear Nick Kroll’s chewy phony German accent thunder it loud and proud in surround sound.) A broad burlesque of superhero tropes flits just beneath the story, which is entirely driven by the gags it can produce. Giant toilets, radioactive leftovers, mad scientist hooey, and wackadoodle plot turns are packed in every which way and it all wraps up in under 90 minutes.

Wacky caricatures and mindless frivolity are the name of the game. But the movie really gathers its charm by engaging in an elastic anything-for-a-joke structure and aesthetic. Multiple characters break the fourth wall and frequent narration overlaps and undercuts the central narrative with flashbacks and jokey tossed-off frames. Squishy CG figures make up the movie’s baseline reality – a cheaper, simpler, exaggerated approach that’s closer to a glossy corner-cutting Saturday morning cartoon look – from which it can take off into asides where sequences play out in hand-drawn 2D images, recreated flip books, and even one pleasantly unexpected stopover in a sock puppet world. The whole thing has so much frizzy schoolboy (and it is a boy-centric story, with weirdly nary a prominent girl in sight) energy that it’s a wonder the slapdash narrative and gratingly one-note characters don’t wear out their welcome. There’s not much to hold onto but the film’s giddy goofiness, and that’s where the blessedly short runtime comes in. It gets you out the door before you beg for it to stop, and are still moderately pleased by the dopey buzz of nonsense and the Weird Al theme song in the credits. Sometimes that’s all you need.

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