|Scene from Captain Underpants|
To put it nicely, Captain Underpants isn't a movie about Captain Underpants. Yes, he shows up to stand for three things: 1. Truth, 2. Justice, and 3. All things pre-shrunk and cottony. However, it would be wrong to suggest that he is the main draw of the film. This honor actually goes to George and Harold, who are two friends who love getting into mischief and creating comics. They are the quintessential depiction of childhood friends because, more than anything, there is a joy to being around each other. They inspire creativity and joy in their lives while singing odd songs and making awkward jokes about what they actually do on Saturday mornings. This is a film geared at kids, but probably will work on a nostalgic factor to anyone who has read the Dav Pilkey novels it is adapted from. Even then, don't let the presence of evil toilets and the villain Professor Poopypants keep you from watching. It's a film full of heart and humor, the former of which is sentimental and the latter of which can get gross. Even then, Captain Underpants is a wonderful adaptation that perfectly introduces audiences too squeamish to read the crudely named books to what they have been missing.
The world of Captain Underpants is quickly understood within a matter of seconds. The Dreamworks Animation logo is met with children muffling the song. The first scene is not of the clean C.G. animation that will accompany most of the remaining movie. Instead, it's a story of their most acclaimed creation, of whom has lasted 20 years in pop culture. It is done in a scribbled, hand-drawn matter that doesn't judge type-o's or wince at the large presence of dolphins. In a film that will also include a sock-puppet sequence and the required Flip-O-Rama, the film's aesthetic already embraces the creativity that George and Harold would probably revel in as they laugh in their tree house. The film has a childlike sense of wonder, and finds ways to not just satirize superhero culture, but finds what draws us to the desire to create in the first place.
Pilkey, and subsequently the screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, were smart to keep the world within the confines of their school. The place is depicted as dreary, with many using the hallway as a prison and the lockers as their cells. Even if it's exaggerated for the purpose of George and Harold's narration, it helps to create the oppressive sense of adults, who are best depicted in Principal Krupp. He is strict and hates the boys for getting into a variety of pranks. The only thing more frustrating than such acts as throwing a tiger in a classroom is the pride that they take in their creativity. They love to come up with wacky ideas. Their imagination moves faster than celluloid would ever allow them to. It is why their story plays well into the movie format, such as when the credits roll prematurely following a prank that got them out of a miserable Saturday school assembly.
It's why the conflict that the film focuses on isn't specifically that of Captain Underpants doing goofy stuff. His journey through the city is full of great slapstick gags, with Ed Helms' assured line delivery making the performance all the more enduring. However, it is his creators who make the experience work on a deeper level. George and Harold watch as their creation leads them to critique their act as "Super dumb," especially as he punches mimes and throws the elderly into trees. It leads to the hiring of Professor Poopypants, whose key desire is to destroy laughter, and arguably ruin any chance for a creative act ever again. The fact that there's concern of George and Harold forced to be separated into different classes only makes the themes more prominent that, yes, creativity would save the day.
It is largely why the film works. It isn't just that the film has lowbrow humor and follows a man in tighty whities. It is about the threat of creativity being pulled from a child's life, forcing them to be miserable and lack critical thinking skills. George and Harold may be silly, but they sure aren't dumb. The film embraces the childlike sense of wonder through the themes and adds a deeper emotional text that is largely missing from the books. Even then, the third act is a smorgasbord of delightful animation, mixing its somewhat juvenile characters with inspired action beats. It may not be a film that redefines the family or superhero film genres, but it's definitely a proud addition to both and represents what these films should aspire to be. They're not only a lot of silly fun, but they're also able to connect with viewers on a deeper level.
Captain Underpants is a movie that is in some ways worth the 20 year wait. The creators definitely were loyal to Pilkey's story and kept the tone in tact. It shows in the ability to turn sometimes juvenile humor into very witty explorations of the English language while giving audiences a premise that will help it connect to kids without condescension. It may be a bit more of a greatest hits compilation than a strict retelling of any given story, but it still manages to live up to the fun that people got reading the books over these past few decades. It may even get more people to read the books and experience their own creative upstart. One can do worse than believe in the potential of wedgie power this summer, so take the family and prepare to laugh along and celebrate through the credits with a great Weird Al theme song. There's nothing else quite like it.