Friday 20 January 2023

On TV: "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie"

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie slipped out without much fanfare on first release, which limited its profitability and the prospect of sequels, but it was DreamWorks Animation's liveliest offering for some while. Drawn up along Miller/Lordish lines, it's the playful-mischievous tale of two middle-school pranksters - Harold (voiced by Thomas Middleditch) and George (Kevin Hart) - who, in the course of railing against the strictures of their grim, glum institution, wind up hypnotising their overbearing headmaster Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) and persuading him that he's the entirely fictional hero of the title, a flying loon the pair first created for their self-drawn comic books. What follows is more Weird Science than Marvel: the untrousered Krupp is essentially an animated Frankenstein's monster the boys can get to do their bidding - until they can't control him any longer.

Still, the universe director David Soren and his animators create is fundamentally unstable. Just as Captain Underpants keeps reverting to his original identity and has to be repeatedly put under, so the film switches freely between hand-drawn artistry, digimation, sock puppetry and musical numbers. Whenever it approaches formula, Soren shakes everything up again: I haven't mentioned the rendition of the "1812 Overture" played with whoopie cushions and armpit farts, the giant toilet brought on by the villainous Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) to help mimic the citysmashing that now comes as standard with our superhero movies, or the bits with a raygun that scatter tremendous jokes of scale. Somewhere in the background, there's some editorial on how standardised learning clamps down on our youngsters' imagination; closer to the foreground, a sweet interracial friendship that cannot and will not be sundered. Yet Soren bounces through it all, giving no greater thought to any of this than Harold and George themselves, and thus allowing his ADHD-stricken camera to repeatedly relocate that material that middle-schoolers will find the most important. "Poopypants is a lot of fun to say," observes the digimated lady who oversees the film's Nobel Prize committee. It is, madam; it is.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie screens on BBC1 this Sunday at 2.15pm.

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