Like plenty of others around my age, I grew up reading Captain Underpants. In many ways, Captain Underpants was a book designed for ten-year-olds. It was fast-paced, interactive, and best of all, it had a whole lot of toilet humour. Sometimes literally. Sure, they weren’t the most educational books, but at least they got kids reading.
Now brought onto the silver screen, Captain Underpants looks to capitalize on its kid-friendly roots.
Captain Underpants : The First Epic Movie flips through the lives of two pranksters and best friends, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch). But when their mean-spirited school principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), intends to put the two in separate classes, George and Harold hypnotize Mr. Krupp into becoming Captain Underpants, the eponymous superhero from their self-published comic book series.
The hidden genius of the Captain Underpants novels was its sense of wit. It might not be apparent at first glance, but the books were smarter than people gave it credit for. There were recurring gags, funny anagrams, and plenty of meta-jokes. Kids who grew up reading these books fondly remember their famous letter-swapping sign jokes, or the incredibly brief chapters titled, “To Make a Long Story Short.”
But how do you adapt this into a movie? Wordplay isn’t exactly prominent in cinema, particularly when it’s written. So rather than directly adapt the novels verbatim, the filmmakers instead chose to emulate the spirit of the novels.
In doing so, they have faithfully captured what it felt like to read Captain Underpants, even if the adaptation itself isn’t all that faithful to the story.
For instance, there was a scene where, in lieu of a real action sequence, the battle is given to us through a Flip-O-Rama. Any fan would recognize these immediately, but the joke itself is the fragility of the Flip-O-Rama itself. As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his review, “As any true ‘Captain Underpants’ fan will tell you, the flip book interludes in Pilkey’s books are the best parts. Here, the filmmakers haven’t just included one, they’ve gone to the trouble of reproducing the inevitable moment where the flippers get so excited that they tear the page.”
This gag, among many others, demonstrates how the filmmakers understand the source material. They’ve read the books, laughed at the jokes and played with the gimmicks. Their focus with the film was to crack a joke or play a prank whenever possible. They want us to engage with the silliness, not mindlessly gawk at the screen.
There isn’t much to talk about in regards to the plot; after being hypnotized, Captain Underpants carelessly hires a mad scientist, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) as the new science teacher. Poopypants, after years of people laughing at his name, plots to rid the world of laughter with the help of Melvin (Jordan Peele), the school’s nerdy, brown-nosing tattletale. Poopypants and Melvin are both mainstays of the novels, and here, they’re so cartoonishly evil that it’s hard to imagine them as anything but the bad guys.
The story also throws in a love interest for Mr. Krupp in Edith (Kristen Schaal), the shy lunch lady. While I’m not in love with the idea of humanizing the typically mean Mr. Krupp, it does gives the film a sense of closure when he compromises with George and Harold in the end. It’s important to remember that Mr. Krupp himself is not the antagonist, even if his actions are the catalyst for the plot to begin with.
In the end, Captain Underpants is a kids movie that is enjoyable purely because it appeals to its target audience. The film’s light whimsy culminates in a movie that is fun because, well, it doesn’t feel like homework. From that familiar “Tra-la-laaa!” to the catchy theme song sung by Weird Al, I adore the film in all its juvenile jubilation.
This may be DreamWorks’ first Captain Underpants movie, but it certainly won’t be their last. Or as our heroes would put it, “Here we go again!”