Two superhero films hit theaters this weekend that feature heroes who are similarly valiant and who share a struggle as aliens in a foreign land attempting to align their altruistic values against the darker, evil elements of mankind. One is outfitted in armor and leather, the other prefers a roomy, high-waisted cotton brief. Turns out that Captain Underpants, of "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie," is cut from the same moral cloth as the awesome Amazonian goddess Diana of "Wonder Woman."
Of course, George and Harold, the boy creators of Captain Underpants, take their inspiration from the same comic books that birthed Wonder Woman, deriving his juvenile name from the idea that most superheroes do fly around in their undies. The best friends are the creation of Dav Pilkey, author of the popular children's novel series, which makes its way to the big screen this weekend.
Dreamworks Animation has done right by the adaptation in hiring comedy filmmaker Nicholas Stoller to adapt the screenplay. The story of "Captain Underpants" is funny, fresh and frantic, playing with format and genre, adding meta, self-reflective winks. The film is propelled by its hyperactive energy and quirky style — directed breathlessly by David Soren — and the combustible chemistry between the two leads. Voiced by Thomas Middleditch and Kevin Hart, who play Harold and George, respectively, they are a pair of pranksters who fight back against the Man — Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) — with elaborate practical jokes.
Their resistance also comes in the form of their handmade comic books featuring the overgrown baby superhero. George is the writer, Harold the artist, and this creative outlet is a sanctuary from the tyranny of the draconian school, which Krupp runs like a prison. He threatens to split up the two boys to stem their troublemaking, and in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to salvage their friendship, they hypnotize their principal with a plastic cereal box trinket. Suddenly, he's behaving like a very enthusiastic, though very dumb, Captain Underpants.
For George and Harold, humor is the backbone of their political action at school, spreading anarchy and delight throughout the otherwise dreary environment. The amusement isn't just for them — it's for the other children, they tell themselves, and it is, providing bright spots of levity for the bored, scared kids. All of that is threatened with the arrival of a devious new science teacher, Professor P (Nick Kroll), who wants to devise a way to stop children from laughing (at him and his embarrassing surname, mostly). Kroll's Swiss-accented performance captures the dastardly and devious mania of this mad genius.
For a film that is almost entirely based on toilet humor of the fourth grade reading level, you may be surprised that there is some sage wisdom to be found in the saga of Captain Underpants. The film contains strong messages about the ability of art to speak truth to power, the importance of standing up to oppression and the subversive nature of laughter. Turns out that sometimes the crayon can be mightier than the sword. "Captain Underpants" also imparts a universal lesson about the distinction between laughing with someone, rather than at them, and most important, about being able to laugh at yourself.
He's in his underpants, for crying out loud.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
'Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie'
Rated: PG, for mild rude humor throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release