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‘Captain Underpants’ offers brief(s) animated fun

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Kiddie film full of potty humor and surprising sincerity

I’ll freely admit that I had mixed feelings about walking up to a movie theater ticket counter and saying “One for ‘Captain Underpants’ please.”

Beyond a vague familiarity with the books by Dav Pilkey – basically, knowing that they exist – I knew very little about this going in. What I expected from “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” was something juvenile and silly, with loads of potty humor and goofy gags. And I got that.

What I didn’t expect – but definitely also got – was a heartwarming, clever and sincere story of friendship and determined creativity in the face of a system where it is undervalued.

For real – I’m as surprised as you are.

George (Kevin Hart, “The Secret Life of Pets”) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch, TV’s “Silicon Valley”) are best friends attending elementary school together. They love nothing more than making each other laugh; their primary means of doing so revolves around creating comics (George writes, Harold draws). Their favorite creation is the superdim superhero Captain Underpants.

They also have a tendency to engage in elaborate pranks at school – a habit that infuriates their hardnosed, ultra-strict principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms, “Love the Coopers”) to no end. But while Krupp knows they’re the culprits, he can’t ever quite manage to gather any proof.

But when the two are caught on camera in an act of pranking sabotage, Krupp has all he needs to put an end to their shenanigans once and for all. His plan? To put George and Harold in separate classes and completely destroy their friendship. In an act of desperation, George attempts to hypnotize Mr. Krupp – and succeeds. For a laugh, they decide to make the principal believe he is Captain Underpants.

This plays out in more or less the ridiculous fashion you imagine.

However, George and Harold are put on the spot when a new science teacher – the weird and clearly up to something Professor P (Nick Kroll, “Sing”) – shows up and sets into motion a sinister plan. The school’s only hope – indeed, the world’s only hope – is that George and Harold (along with Captain Underpants) can save the day.

Look, I have plenty of room on my cinematic palate for the juvenile. I like poop jokes as much as the next guy – probably more. But I assumed that that was all this movie would be, a one-note premise that would wear thin long before the movie’s short 84-minute runtime came to an end.

Happily, I was mistaken.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a TON of potty humor here. But there are also a few surprisingly sophisticated bits here. As goofy as the packaging might be, the underlying message of the movie is an endearingly positive one. Honestly – it’s pretty funny, not to mention awash in an unselfconscious sweetness.

Once you get a look at the talent involved in making the movie, it all starts to make sense. The comedic talent in the voice cast is significant. Hart and Middleditch are great; both of them are easy to buy as sharper-than-usual children. It’s always fun when Ed Helms is unleashed; his knack for goofball grandiosity is used to exceptional effect. Kroll seems to be carving out a niche as one of the go-to voices of animated villainy; he’s delightful. And oh yeah – notables like Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal and Brian Posehn are along for the ride as well.

Director David Soren has spent the better part of two decades working in animation; this is a guy who understands how animated movies are supposed to work. And screenwriter Nicholas Stoller has across the board cred – he’s got the animated “Storks,” a couple of Muppet movies and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” on his CV, among others.

When you assemble this kind of team, you’ve certainly stacked the odds in your favor. But these folks didn’t try to reinvent the wheel; they weren’t interested in shoehorning this story into their own comedic preconceptions. By all appearances, the filmmakers kept the aesthetic as close as possible to the source material, capturing the quirky character design that gave Pilkey’s books their vivid charm. Everyone involved embraced the Captain Underpants ethos – such as it is – and the movie benefits greatly from that decision.

“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” makes its intentions clear from the very beginning. This movie is unapologetically ridiculous, yet never feels shallow or condescending. It’s a film that celebrates the joys of both farts and friendship. And as it says in the title – this is only the first.

Much to my surprise, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next … and my feelings won’t be nearly as mixed when I buy that ticket.

[4 out of 5]

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