With animation and superheroes overcrowding the multiplex, the burnout factor looms large for an animated superhero.
Fortunately, “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” flies to the rescue of both genres. Even if viewers are justifiably tired of the stuff, this energetic film about the power of laughter is amusing enough to hold their attention.
“Faster than a speeding waistband. More powerful than boxer shorts. Able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie.”
That’s the Captain Underpants envisioned by best friends George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who craft comic books in their treehouse.
But their creativity is hardly limited to the page. The fourth-graders have gained renown for elaborate pranks pulled at Jerome Horwitz Elementary (the birth name of Curly from the Three Stooges). In fact, they’re so frequently sent to the principal’s office that they have permanent name plaques installed above the waiting-room chairs.
Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) has a sign of his own perched atop his desk: “Hope dies here.” The angry and vindictive educator is bent on locating the proof he needs to tie George and Harold to their latest prank, giving him the say-so to place them in separate classes.
The boys attempt to overhaul this situation via hypnotism but end up making Krupp believe he is Captain Underpants — a superhero who tries to fight crime minus any real powers, which introduces a whole batch of other problems.
Meanwhile, an actual mad scientist (Nick Kroll) is hired as the school’s science teacher. So the students must team with the caped crusader to stop the supervillain from unleashing his world-altering scheme.
Author Dav Pilkey first published “Captain Underpants” 20 years ago. Now with a dozen volumes in the series and 70 million copies sold, it’s interesting to note his signature work routinely finds itself on the most-banned books list due to “unsuitable humor” and “anti-authority” themes.
These are exactly the type of things that keep the DreamWorks adaptation compelling. The flat-topped George and poodle-haired Harold combine the rebellious attitude of Bart Simpson with the inventive resourcefulness of Phineas and Ferb. By targeting boring school assemblies and dubious cafeteria meals, the pair fabricate fun wherever it is lacking, no matter how “inappropriate” the setting. To some, that may seem to court anarchy. But these kids are good-natured, not malicious.
Potty humor is probably to be expected for a story with underpants in the title. If only the poop jokes were as subtle as the other throwaway gags. For instance, a band concert performed using only whoopee cushions is less than hilarious.
Filmmaker David Soren (of the underrated “Turbo”) and writer Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets”) are saddled with a lot of stock characters: a mean principal, a know-it-all science nerd, a lonely lunch lady. Somehow they find fresh ways to weave them organically into the wacky plot. They sustain momentum by telling their tale in crayon drawings, as a flipbook and even via sock puppets.
Early in the movie, George and Harold explain how most superheroes appear to be flying around in underwear, so they decide to create one who actually is. What at first seems like an outrageous concept is justified in practical terms.
That pretty much describes “Captain Underpants,” a goofball premise handled with admirable professionalism.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”
Opens at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Rated PG for mild rude humor throughout.