Actually, the cool thing is, it's exactly that. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is something of a behind-the-scenes experiment for DreamWorks in seeing how far they can stretch a buck. A well-overdue experiment, at that, just two years after the studio's existence hinged on the success or failure of the movie Home. Captain Underpants was made for a pittance, merely $38 million, which is obviously more than you or I could scrounge out of our couch cushions, but it's the studio's cheapest movie ever, and that's after 20 years of inflation. Even Illumination Entertainment, a studio whose modus operandi has essentially been to make movies for the smallest outlay of cash that will still result in a a functional object, regardless of the results, has never been able to get a budget that low. DreamWorks was able to make this happen in part by farming out the animation and effects work to Mikros Image in Montréal (which brought with it some Canadian tax credits, undoubtedly factored into that $38 million price tag); more impressively and more importantly, they did it by thinking of ways to tailor the film's aesthetic to the resources they had. If you believe, as I very firmly do, that restrictions are the most important thing you can give to an artist, Captain Underpants is extra-heartening: it's simply extraordinary that a film that looks this good, and involves this much stylistic creativity, could have been made for not much more than a quarter of the cost of something as shabby as Mr. Peabody & Sherman from the dark days of 2014 (or the dark days of 2013, when Captain Underpants director David Soren was busy making the godawful Turbo. Budget: $127 million).
I am unfamiliar with the books by Dav Pilkey upon which the film is based, a series spanning substantially longer than the lifetimes of the books' - or movie's - target audience, with twelve volumes published between 1997 and 2015; my sense is that that the script, by Nicholas Stoller, is a summary of the first few of them. Herein, we have a pair of fourth- graders, George (Kevin Hart, happily toned down) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), who are genial pranksters at Jerome Horwitz Elementary School, and the particular antagonists of the stern principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). They're also the creators of a comic book superhero, Captain Underpants, who serves largely as a vessel for the boys to jot down whatever dirty jokes and assorted absurdity crosses their mind (Harold has a thing about random dolphin references). These two things collide when the boys, trying to steal back a videorecording that proves their guilt at one of their latest pranks, manage hypnotise Krupp into believing that he is Captain Underpants. Their timing is excellent, because Jerome Horwitz is about to be struck with its very own supervillain, a disgruntled scientist named Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), who wants to eradicate the sense of humor from every human being in the world in retaliation for the public ridicule he's endured because of his surname.
Kroll's presence as an animated bad guy inevitably puts me in mind of the last time he did this, in 2016's Sausage Party, a film that I find makes quite an interesting comparison to Captain Underpants. Both films, after all, are celebrations of the joys of dirty jokes - dirty jokes as told by stoners with a propensity for swearing in Sausage Party, dirty jokes as told by eight-year-olds here, but it's the same basic thing, the only question is whether the word "fuck" or the word "poop" strikes you as the height of wit. The amazing thing is how much more... God help me, how much more mature Captain Underpants turns out to be. If I were to sum up the comic theory of Captain Underpants, it would be thus: the human body is weird as hell, and makes weird as hell noises, and weird as hell fluids come out of it, and you're a damn liar if you deny that it's all ridiculous and at least faintly amusing. And it says this while acknowledging that it's profoundly unsophisticated to tell poop jokes, and as children grow into young adults, it's likely and important that they'll probably grow out of this.
I don't know why this strikes me as palatable in way that Shrek murdering a population of fish with his farts isn't; possibly because Shrek simply laughs at farts qua farts, while Captain Underpants wants us to think about what it is about farts that could be funny, whether we find them funny or not. It's very open in its meta-humor without being a drag about it; this is, by all means, a movie for kids & not so much a movie for families, though as an unaccompanied adult, I found it to be perfectly enjoyable as a lighthearted tribute to the joys of laughing at whatever the hell it is that you're laughing at, and having a great friend to laugh with you. That's the other great achievement of Captain Underpants: it's a wonderful depiction of elementary school friendships, so intense and small-scale that something as easily-resolved as being split into separate classrooms could feel like an apocalyptic development.
Basically, Captain Underpants takes being a child quite seriously, and makes no effort to speak above the heads of the 11-year-olds in the audience. And of course, we need films like that very much; the all-encompassing sophistication of a top-tier Pixar film is wonderful, but there are a lot of kids, and they need movies as much as adults do, and if we are to have lowest-common-denominator humor in children's movies with paint-by-numbers plotting, better to have it done with this level of commitment and sincerity.
Better, as well, to have it done with this level of aesthetic achievement: the unassailable fact about Captain Underpants is that, whatever the hell we want to say about its narrative content, it looks just swell. To maximise that low budget, the character designs have been kept simple, all the humans smooth shapes barely more detailed than the drawings in Pilkey's books (one exception that kept dazzling me: George's hair fades into his head at the sideburns, and it's weirdly beautiful). At the level of character animation, I feel that Captain Underpants is the first movie to pick up the baton that The Peanuts Movie threw more than a year and a half ago: the feeling that we're looking at characters who have been squiggled in a notebook and then, somehow, given life in three-dimensional space is pervasive. Even the slightly jerky way they move (which is undoubtedly a side-effect of the little budget) feels right, particularly when we come to the flip-book battle near the end of the film - an extraordinarily good meta-joke - and it hits you that oh, yeah, this whole movie is just what these two funny, idiot kids came up with in their tree house. That explains everything: the simplicity of the designs, the beautifully strong colors - the film has a nice overall background of blues, and then uses green, red, and purple as striking accent colors - the softness of the backgrounds. And of course, so much the better if it explains everything and also costs nothing at all. Sausage Party only cost a little bit less than this, and looked like it was made in a video game sweatshop in the 1990s.
As has become common for DreamWorks, Captain Underpants also plays around with mixed media: the scenes from the boys' comic book are brought to life in faux-crayon 2-D animation, but the real standout is a dream sequence made with stop-motion sock puppets, done by the L.A.-based Screen Novelties. Unlike in the Kung Fu Pandas, or this spring's The Boss Baby, there's no overt sense that this is done in the spirit of experimentation; it's just fun, albeit fun that's also tremendously appealing to look at. And, more to the point, fun that's entirely in keeping with the childish attitude of the whole project.
Obviously, this is all awfully trivial and whathaveyou. You knew that from the film's title. But it is trivial in the most heartfelt way, and if once upon a time, DreamWorks made hugely expensive animated movies that felt insulting to their audience, now they've flipped around to making what practically amounts to a boutique product, and spent every penny with care and love for the characters and the audience. As a grown damn adult, I know that this is all just potty-mouthed fluff, but I confess reader, if and when Captain Underpants gets a second epic movie, I'll be ready and eager to check it out.