The world of mainstream animated comedy, in case you hadn’t noticed, has been regressing to infantile states of being. Last year we had “Storks,” a light kiddie fantasy about how newborns get delivered; earlier this year, there was “The Boss Baby,” in which a glowering infant tyrant traded in his diapers for a corporate power suit and attitude to match. Now, the reversion to what Sigmund Freud — or maybe it was Adam Sandler — diagnosed as the 5-year-old funny bone reaches its apotheosis in “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” a high-spirited, low-comedy adaptation of the first of Dav Pilkey’s hugely popular series of children’s novels. (It was published in 1997, and in the years since there have been 11 sequels and three spinoffs, which have sold a combined 50 million copies in the U.S. alone.) Parents: Are you ready to hold your nose and giggle?
The title character of “Captain Underpants” is a scolding meanie of a grade-school principal who is hypnotized into getting in touch with his inner idiot: a blobby mock superhero who announces himself with a fanfare of “Tra-la-laaa!” He then scampers around in stretched-out tighty-whities and speckled cape, performing good deeds of staggering imbecility. In addition to underwear jokes, “Captain Underpants” features peepee jokes, fart jokes, and giant monster-toilet jokes. The movie could be to grade-school scatology what “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” was to cuisine.
It also has a villain named Professor P — a sawed-off Einstein in sunglasses, a Chermin accent, and cottony puffs of hair. His agenda isn’t world domination; it’s to eliminate any sense of humor in children, all because he has a neurotic complex about the fact that his real name — wait for it — is Professor Poopypants. Are you laughing yet? Poopypants teams up with Melvin (Jordan Peele), a student nerd who’s a humor-impaired brown-noser, but the villain here is really anyone who won’t give in and crack up at what the movie, in one of its periodic meta japes, refers to as “the lowest form of comedy.” Directed by David Soren, from a script by Nicholas Stoller (the co-director of “Storks”), “Captain Underpants” is an animated bauble that wears its heart on its whoopee cushion, though if you don’t happen to be 5 years old, it may strike you as more cheeky (no pun intended) than hilarious. (My own daughters are 6 and 4; I’m already gearing up for repeat viewings.)
The main characters are a couple of square-headed fourth graders with sidelong grins, George (voiced by Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who have been best friends ever since they bonded, in first grade, over the insane funniness of the word “Uranus.” If that makes it sound like we’re watching “Beavis and Butt-Head: The Formative Years” (if only!), George and Harold are as quick-witted and wholesome as they are likely to laugh at a good bodily-function joke. Sure, they specialize in dreaming up school pranks, but only because the vicious Principal Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms), with his oversize gnashing teeth and lid-flipping spidery toupee, runs the place like a glum penitentiary (explaining his office bunker, he says, “It was a choice between the magnetic door and closing down the school music and arts programs”). George and Harold are just trying to do something — anything — to relieve the tedium.
The two are clever cutups who’ve created many volumes of their own hand-drawn comic book, Captain Underpants. When a 3D Hypno Ring out of a cereal box turns Principal Krupp into whoever they want him to be, they figure why not bring their pet superhero to life? More a mascot of silliness than an actual savior, Captain Underpants is as benign as Krupp is angry: an ultra-square ricocheting doofus who collides with a car and says, “Why, thank you, vehicle person!” He’s sort of a one-joke affair, and that’s true of the movie as well. This ain’t Pixar or the subversively inspired “Sausage Party.” It’s an unabashedly goofy PG lark: arrestedness delivered with kid gloves.
The movie kicks in when Professor Poopypants shows up to take a job as the school’s new science teacher. Voiced with kitschy conviction by Nick Kroll, he’s a real spark plug of a character, Teutonically sure of himself yet secretly vulnerable, with an amusing way of over-explaining whatever’s in his head (“Hi, class! I’m your cool new teacher, not some sorry guy with a secret evil agenda”). The film’s most inspired sequence is a flashback that features his spectacular public humiliation at the Nobel Prize ceremony. And they haven’t even heard his first name.
The animation in “Captain Underpants” has a softly popping candy-colored sheen. It’s a very pleasing concoction to look at, and it zips along infectiously, but viewed next to something like “Trolls” or “Finding Dory,” it’s a trifle of a movie. Hart, although he makes his personality felt, doesn’t really get the chance to bust loose. Yet “Captain Underpants” isn’t out to be more than a trifle; that’s part of its appeal. It’s not so much potty-mouthed as it is a potty-minded kiddie burlesque, one that finds the supreme innocence in naughtiness.