Directed by: David Soren Written by: Nicholas Stoller
If you’re an English speaking kid not named Melvin Sneedly chances are you giggled about the name of the planet Uranus at some point. It may be something you’re not proud of now: it’s “low humor” as the villains in Captain Underpants so readily point out, but for kids in roughly the 5-9 age range, it’s wit at its finest. This kind of humor is at the heart of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, book which also charm their readers with parodies of the super hero-genre, soft dystopianism, breaking the fourth wall, and puns of varying quality (a favourite of mine comes from the fifth epic novel, Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman in which George or Harold reassures a rabbi they will not cause trouble at their teachers wedding by saying “Silly Rabbi, tricks are for kids.” (that it is possible that Dav Pilkey decided to make Ms. Ribble and/or Mr. Krupp Jewish solely for the purpose of making that joke only makes it better). Perhaps most importantly, the individual books (and the twelve part series) are long enough to allow for the Captain Underpants universe to be quite developed while concise enough to make for light reading.
Kids movies often have to make a decision as to whether they will be a near-exact recreation of their source material (eg the Harry Potter films) or a very loose adaptation (eg Stuart Little). Captain Underpants finds itself on a somewhat odd place in the middle of this spectrum. The characters are exact three-dimensional recreations of Pilkey’s cartoons and their personalities are fairly consistent with what the book offers. The plot, takes somewhat creative liberties however. While the film’s title suggests Captain Underpants may have franchise-style ambitions, “may” is clearly the key word their, as the screenwriters, reasonably, must have decided that each individual book in the series does not contain quite enough content to be a standalone film. The movie instead broadly covers the first four books of the series: it includes the Captain’s origin stories from books one and three, a secondary villain from book two and a primary villain from book four (undoubtedly the villain from those books with the most personality).
The story follows 4th graders George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) as they try and avoid getting in trouble with their draconian principle Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), while maintaining their two joie-de-vivres: pranking school officials and co-producing Captain Underpants comics. The comics tell the story of a superhero who is faster than a speeding waistband, more powerful than boxer shorts and able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie. Also featured are hyper nerd Melvin Sneedley (Jordan Peele), evil genius Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll) and Edith, a cafeteria-lady-in-love (Kristen Schaal).
The film is very strong at the beginning as it brings the novels’ characters to life in great cartoon fashion. Melvin looks charmingly ridiculous when recreated with CGI animation. Krupp’s mechanically sinister smiles are exactly in line with the books’ tone. Nonetheless, there are holes in the film’s execution that suggests there is something about Captain Underpants that cannot be lifted off the page. A mild example of this is when George and Harold interrupt a fight scene to show off their makeshift flip-book action sequences, a fourth-wall breaking tactic that advances plots more naturally in book form, A more pressing example of this is in how the film portrays students other than George and Harold. The film wholeheartedly commits to the idea that George and Harold are liberators of their school’s oppressed students and that their teachers are deeply flawed human beings. This interpretation is not inconsistent with the books per se, and no doubt, Pilkey, marginalized by his teachers due to his ADHD and dyslexia is highly sympathetic to George and Harold. Nonetheless, I feel the film goes a bit too far in its portrayal of George and Harold as unequivocal heroes. Part of the giggly-thrill I got from reading these books as a kid was in knowing that George and Harold were trouble makers, and I felt some of that charm was lost in the film (especially with its somewhat moralistic ending). Furthermore, in the books there is a possibility that George and Harold’s perspective is unreliable, and that the other students don’t mind the teachers nearly as much as the two heroes do. Given that the Captain Underpants books champion imagination, it would not even be a slight against George and Harold to understand their imaginings of their teachers as villains as exaggerated.
That said, I have some reservation about my disappointment. Writing for Slate Jessica Roake defended Captain Underpants as a series of books that kids could see as truly their own. If it takes that sense of ownership for kids to embrace reading, than why should adults knock it? I thus acknowledge that it is not truly my place to rate how good a piece of Captain Underpants media is. If a kid out there is reading things, I hope you find my friendly criticism to be in the spirit of the series and all things pre-shrunk and cottony!