The makers of “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” have a message for all you serious-minded grown-ups out there: Get over yourselves. They know that their animated adaptation of kid-lit author Dav Pilkey’s reluctant-readers franchise goes ridiculously heavy on potty humor. They admit as much in self-referential dialogue slyly acknowledging the characters’ affinity for “the lowest form of comedy” — as if the title or a music credit for “1812 Ofarture” didn’t cover it.
In short, the film owns its immaturity. And the argument it appealingly offers in defense is that it’s healthy, even vital, to be able to laugh at scatological silliness, adults included. Those who can’t do that just might find themselves on the business end of a hypno-ring, tricked into obliviously flitting about town playing tighty-whitey-clad superhero.
That’s the gag that grade-school pranksters George (Kevin Hart, even higher-pitched than usual) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch, less Verizon-vexing than usual) pull on their principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms, playing chronically irate and grandiosely heroic with equal relish).
Not that the little jokers don’t have a compelling reason, one that goes beyond that “affirmational” principal’s desk plate reading, “Hope dies here.” Krupp had begun taking steps to — gasp! — put the boys in separate classes, continuously riled by their homemade “Captain Underpants” comics, or their recent sabotage of the school’s invention convention. (Teacher’s pet Melvin (Jordan Peele) had invented the toilet of tomorrow — how could they resist?) Think of the pair as sympathetic miscreants in the Ferris Bueller mold — an association that the soundtrack’s sampling of Yello’s “Oh Yeah” clearly encourages.
The momentous play given to George and Harold’s impending separation is just one of the ways that director David Soren (“Turbo”) and writer Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets”) actually extend the pervading kid’s-eye view beyond the bathroom. The movie infectiously translates and expands on Pilkey’s doodly aesthetic, even making room for the books’ “flip-o-rama” snippets and a bit of DIY sock puppetry. And the youthfully attuned spirit of the storytelling gives it an authenticity recalling classic “Peanuts” cartoons, right down to the off-key singing.
OK, so maybe Charles Schulz’s oeuvre wouldn’t accommodate a gargantuan, school-demolishing robotic toilet piloted by an Einstein-styled evil professor (Nick Kroll of “Sing,” amusingly repurposing his Gunter accent). But try asking your kids to scribble their own riff on the trailers they’ve seen recently for any number of mayhem-filled summer blockbusters. We’ll bet their version looks a lot like this.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Directed by David Soren. Written by Nicholas Stoller, based on the books by Dav Pilkey. Starring Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 89 minutes. PG (mild rude humor throughout).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.