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Captain Underpants is better than any movie named Captain Underpants has a right to be

Here’s your crass kids movie cure for the bloated summer blockbuster blues.

Captain Underpants
Captain Underpants is here!
Dreamworks Animation
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I don’t think Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie should be as good as it is — which is to say, light and breezy and solid early-summertime fun — solely because its name is Captain Underpants. Does that make me a heathen?

I mean the name Captain Underpants — that suggests booger and vomit and fart jokes, and even as a child, I was unmoved by them. (There is a kid character in the film who never laughs at anything and says, “I don’t get why that’s funny,” and it hit a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.) And, sure, there are booger and vomit and fart jokes in Captain Underpants, and there’s a guy whose name is Professor Poopypants, and everything zings with a kind of nervous little kid energy.

But you know what? This movie is fun. It has its heart and its poop in the right place.

Captain Underpants is well-written, (sometimes) visually engaging, and really, really short

The story of Captain Underpants, based on the popular kids books by Dav Pilkey, follows two elementary school pranksters named George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), whose only goal in life is to avoid being sent to different classrooms by the authoritarian Principal Krupp (Ed Helms).

Through an unlikely chain of events, they hypnotize Krupp into believing he’s Captain Underpants, the superhero they’ve written a number of comics about, then have to keep him from doing serious harm to himself and/or others by attempting to carry out his super-exploits. Meanwhile, the evil Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) shows up to give the movie a supervillain.

That’s it! That’s all the movie needs! It doesn’t tack on unnecessary subplots or side-quests. It just follows two boys scared about the sturdiness of their friendship, a principal who thinks he’s a superhero (sometimes), and a plot that’s mostly a chance for Kroll to be weird. Its running time is 89 minutes, but enough of that is closing credits that it’s probably closer to 82 or 83. In a summer already filling up with bloated, over-long movies, it was a relief.

Captain Underpants
Captain Underpants is a beautiful boy.
Dreamworks Animation

But Underpants has more going for it than brevity. The script, by Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), one of my favorite current movie comedy writer-directors, is both clever and silly without tilting too far in either direction. George and Harold break the fourth wall to acknowledge they’re in a movie in fun ways, but they also love whoopie cushions and belches and little kid humor. Stoller walks the line between the two poles admirably, and when I saw his name in the closing credits, I realized why the movie balanced a bunch of comedic ideas and a handful of fun running jokes so well.

The film’s visuals are slightly more boilerplate. The character designs have that somewhere-between-plastic-and-Play-Doh appearance of so much computer animation of late, and there are scenes where the characters don’t seem to exist in the same space as their backgrounds, which isn’t great in a movie set in so many ostensibly real spaces (like classrooms, etc.).

But director David Soren does have some fun tricks up his sleeve. There are sequences animated to appear like the kids’ marker-drawn comics, and a later sequence features two brains animated like they’re in one of those ’50s cartoon with big, bright, simple shapes and wide eyes. The switching between visual styles isn’t something the film does often enough, but it offers the movie a playfulness that suits it.

Look, the movie’s called Captain Underpants. It’s about a guy who runs around in his underpants and a cape, and it features a cereal box prize hypno-ring that really works. It has some clever jokes and some good potty humor and a dash of visual inventiveness. And it’s really short!

Summer movies are supposed to be fun little treats, right? If that’s the case, then Captain Underpants is a candy bar you toss in your grocery cart at the last minute — a tasty little bite after you’re done with everything else. I was surprised to like this as much as I did. Maybe you will be, too.

Captain Underpants is playing nationwide. Maybe don’t dress up as the title character when you go to a showing.