May 31, 2017

In Defense of the "Captain Underpants" Franchise

It is tough to understand how, after 20 years in publication, a story like Captain Underpants is brought to the big screen. At its core, it is a satire on superhero culture by focusing on hero whose initial banal trait is that he was a hypnotized principal who "fought" crime in his underwear. Dav Pilkey's original stories work as a way to get young kids to read, but it does seem weird that a franchise full of characters like Talking Toilets, Wicked Wedgie Woman, and Professor Pippy P. Poopypants would become a phenomenon that's lasted through four different decades. Still, it's a controversial property and one that comes to theaters this Friday. It may not be the greatest superhero movie of the summer (or even of that weekend depending on Wonder Woman's success), but it definitely deserves more credit than it is likely to get.
While difficult to believe, the various entries in the "Captain Underpants" franchise have been banned more times than much more explicit books like E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey." But why? Is Pilkey's world full of bad influences? The censors would suggest so, as the book is as satirical as it is rooted in a slapstick sensibility. This is especially true in the books' "Flip-o-Rama" section where readers reenact violent set pieces by flipping pages. What is misconstrued is that this violence is comical and not meant to suggest that readers will become morally irresponsible. Then again, it's part of the charm. There is a danger to reading a book that revels in literal toilet humor without simply being a bunch of pointless gags. By removing the pretentious undertones of superheroes, Pilkey found a way to get kids to read, and that was by appealing to their sensibilities.
Yes, the title may be referring to central character Captain Underpants, but the story is really about Harold and George. They are two troublemakers who revel in changing signs to spell out gross jokes and participating in pranks that include sometimes fecal subject matter. Pilkey isn't above sometimes gross humor, but it's only one layer to his brilliance. He uses Harold and George as cyphers to better understand this world of crudely drawn animation. They may be annoying to adults, but there's something crucial to kids that works. They are wholeheartedly kids who get thrust into the odd situation of creating a superhero. It should seem implausible, but ends up becoming their passion that they created inside their tree house headquarters. As the stories progress, they got more complicated and more fantastical. Still, it was the world of George and Harold doing their best to make their school lives into whimsical superhero tales.
There's also a certain intelligence to the series that may be a bit hard to recognize at first. These characters may be a bit silly and lowbrow with their jokes, but the route to solving their problems come from a place of clever critical thinking. There's even a point in the fourth book where Pilkey sets aside time to show a complicated algorithm on how people can make their name into something delightfully juvenile. With cleaner words, it could work as a Dr. Seuess bit. Instead, it explains why there's a character named Professor Poopypants who is frustrated by a public that finds his name hilarious. The book manages to navigate through an interesting tapestry of lowbrow humor and backdoor intelligence that captures the mentality of its audience. They don't always want to be highbrow to feel smart. They just want to feel like they're doing something valuable and authentic. George and Harold, while likely to encourage people to pick their nose, serve as the perfect gateway to finding critical thinking and humor without having to feel like it's lame.
Sure, there's a limit to the appeal of Captain Underpants beyond that. If the idea of a bumbling hero with almost no exciting power and Z-rated villains doesn't interest you, then it'll be a tough sell. Even then, Pilkey cleverly satirizes genre tropes within context and makes it feel like a world that readers will appreciate. It is one similar to their own. While using less eloquent works, it does have a similar appeal to Harry Potter (besides both having second books based around toilets). It gets children interested in reading. Unlike Harry Potter, Captain Underpants never tried to evolve to deeper mythology beyond very silly stories. It's why there's been 12 books in the series plus several spin-offs that include the recently started "Dog Man" series. If you're looking for something fun and ribald but not condescending, then there's reason to enjoy Captain Underpants on his many journeys. Here's hoping that the movie will hit the same chords. 

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