Don’t know if you can tell, but I’m a pretty brainy sorta guy. So it should come as little surprise that my favorite kind of comedy is the kind that actively forces my brain to shut down: slapstick, farce, and absurdism. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) just barely misses the mark, but the way it misses it is very interesting.
One would think that a story as patently absurd as that of Captain Underpants would tickle my funny bone, but actually, underneath the intentionally cartoonish premise and storyworld is a straightforward application of rigorous logic. Every story has its own logic, of course, whether it’s by Joseph Heller or Franz Kafka. The difference between the two, and what makes one of them funny while the other is merely surreal, is that Kafka pursues his uncanny logic to the bitter end, whereas Heller takes every opportunity to subvert his, throwing a monkey wrench into every gear.
In terms of film, the rigorous logic of a film like Wrong (2012) is what makes it so incredibly unfunny. Yes, absurdities abound, like an indoor office with constant rain, or a faux-East Asian master of . . . something (played by William Fichtner, no less!) whose book on telepathic communication with dogs actually frickin’ works. But the central logic is immovable: Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnik) goes in search of his missing dog, overcoming, making use of, getting around, or otherwise dealing with whatever weird obstacle bars his way. On the other hand, a hilarious, logic-bending comedy like Minions (2015), my favorite of all the good work that comes out of Illumination, still has a plot, but it treats it as an excuse to stuff gags and detours in between each step of the way, or wherever else they might fit (and sometimes where they don’t fit—The Lego Batman Movie (2017) excels at this).
Captain Underpants starts off wonderfully ridiculous, but it gradually takes its logic too seriously, and by the end, resolving the plot takes up all its attention. First off, Kevin Hart’s voice, as George Beard, is pure comic gold. Nick Kroll’s voice for Professor Poopypants (full name: Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.) is incredibly silly, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out; but Hart’s voice is just bonkers, infusing every line with barely contained energy—sometimes excited, mostly panicked and/or outraged. The way the film treats the framing of its camera as a comic panel is also fun and rather unexpected, as are the unlikely shared treehouse and the overwrought illustrations of emotion, like when it suddenly rains when the boys realize they have to go to school on a Saturday.
The first misstep is when the Turbo Toilet 2000 starts spitting out toilet paper rolls and the kids turn it into a party. Now, I don’t know if I’m missing something here about how much fun a toilet paper roll (or fifty) could be, but I just didn’t buy the emotion in this scene. Maybe that’s the point, that the invention fair is so boring that literally any diversion feels like a party? Regardless, the scene still stuck rigidly to its logic, and any fun we viewers might’ve had are preempted by our waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it does. From this point forward, all the crazy, highly exaggerated sequences externalizing the inner states of George and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) lose their crazy high exaggeration, because according to the logic of the film, which is powered by the grinding gears of the plot, being put into different classrooms really does feel to the boys exactly how it’s depicted on-screen. It’s not funny; it’s tragic.
Instead of providing a barebones plot to stuff with gags, the film focuses on the plot as the main source of humor, turning a promising farce into a picaresque à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). This is most obvious when we compare the final showdown with that of Minions. Here, it’s a classic good versus evil conflict, with evil seemingly gaining the upper hand until good draws on some untapped power to overcome it. The comedy ensues mostly from the (mis)use of Professor Poopypants’s size-altering Ray Gun, with the two main exceptions being when Harold slaps the naughty professor on the hand, and when the professor unleashes the snark with the line that utterly destroyed me (and Seitz): Responding to the boys’ suggestion that his real problem is being unable to laugh at himself, he retorts, “Oh, is that really what my problem is, Oprah?” In Minions, the final conflict also features some super-sizing, but there the conflict itself arises from a series of improbable mistakes, and the only thing Kevin (Pierre Coffin, playing all the minions) really stands for is not letting his friends come to harm. Instead of a big fat showdown, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is defeated by her own actions turned against her. This leaves ample space for gag after gag to be stuffed in, like the Godzilla-angle shots of the oversized Kevin, the fact that the only way Kevin can think of to deal with the rocket is to swallow it, the minions’ funeral hum, and basically just anything having to do with lots and lots of minions (Rembert Browne agrees; hey, lemmings are funny). There are no real stakes, so we feel free to see the funny side of things.
And maybe that’s the key to a good farce: something that the characters care about a lot, but in which the viewer has zero stakes. Kind of like this (the live performance was even better).