Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie: Baby Food, by David Bax
I almost feel embarrassed to be writing a review of David Soren’s Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. I definitely felt embarrassed, as a 34 year old, childless man sitting by himself, to even be watching it in the first place. It’s not that the movie is bad. It’s just that it is pitched at the sensibilities of an age range that I have long forgotten and don’t care to remember.
Captain Underpants is a superhero origin story nested inside a superhero origin story. We first meet the character inside the pages of homemade comics created by George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), two elementary school students with a penchant for pranks that, given their age, it would be redundant to describe as sophomoric or juvenile. When their cranky, totalitarian school principal (Ed Helms) threatens to separate the two best friends, they hypnotize the authority figure into believing that he himself is Captain Underpants. Meanwhile, the school has just hired a new science teacher who happens to have supervillianous leanings (Nick Kroll).
So Captain Underpants is a movie about a superhero who’s not really the superhero the movie is about. That’s just the beginning of the movie’s strongest attribute, its persistent, layered self-awareness. George and Harold, like the proto-Ferris Buellers they are, occasionally stop and discuss story developments that do and don’t belong in the film you’re watching. At one point, Harold opts to depict a major action sequence via crude flipbook drawings in order to tone down the violence. It’s a sort of “baby’s first postmodernism.”
Those pencil drawings aren’t the only example of Soren’s structuralist horseplay. Captain Underpants employs, alongside its main ingredient of 3D computer imagery, sequences of 2D animation and, in one case, even live action sock puppetry.
As the result, the movie has a busyness to it that’s probably fitting for the young minds for whom it’s intended. For me, it at least provided an ongoing distraction from the actual content, most of which is shrill and tiresome. Soren is aiming to recreate the world of a child, with the attendant humor and values. Some of these scenes hit home, like a quick bit about the sacredness of a Saturday to a kid who hates school and the crushing unfairness when circumstances rob you of that day’s freedom. Mostly, though, he depicts children as existing at all times in one of two states, fun or boredom. And fun is defined almost exclusively by toilet humor. There may be a lot of truth to this characterization of youth but, without anything to say about it, why would I, as an adult, care?
Captain Underpants is a movie to take your kids to; certainly the young ones at the screening I attended seemed to enjoy it. As cinema, though, it is a successful but ultimately hollow stylistic experiment. It accomplishes one thing without a doubt. It reminds you what you were like as a child: Stupid.