Review: Captain Underpants Delivers an Experience Akin to Childlike Wonder

Review: Captain Underpants Delivers an Experience Akin to Childlike Wonder

We were all kids once. Having been kids, we should know how creative they can be. Minds develop just like the body does, and it’s good to put them to use.

In his school days, Dav Pilkey did just that. But growing up with ADHD, dyslexia, and an idea that underwear is inherently hilarious made it difficult for his creativity to be understood by his teachers. He was constantly discouraged from making comics revolving around such jokes, and even his high school principal told him that he wouldn’t make it as an artist.

But as the “about the author” section in the back of a few of the Captain Underpants books note, “he was not a very good listener.”

Proving all his childhood naysayers wrong, Pilkey went ahead and published his Captain Underpants stories, which became bestsellers, and have been since 1997. In 2015, the twelfth book was published, ending on a note that seems very conclusive.

It wouldn’t be impossible, but it wouldn’t be likely that another book will come out. However, a significant entry has been made. On June 2, DreamWorks released an animated adaptation titled Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. The title comes from how the books are counted with the tagline “the [sequential number] epic novel by Dav Pilkey.”

But which book is the movie adapting? Believe it or not, it actually draws elements from all 12 of the books. Though the majority of it is derived from the first four (the origin story of the title character as seen in the first book, the villain is Professor Poopypants from the fourth book [and also the ninth and tenth], the villain’s main machine is the Turbo Toilet 2000 from the second book, and there’s a scheme involving zombifying children just like in the third book [though not in the same way]), there are elements from the rest of them. See if you can spot them.

The franchise has generally stressed the importance of embracing creativity. Anybody who tries to stifle it is portrayed as bad, which is fitting considering that these characters (the staff of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School) were based on Pilkey’s creativity-spurning teachers.

Anyone who embraces creativity is portrayed as good. The film’s main characters are two creative and mischievous students named George Beard and Harold Hutchins. In their time away from school and homework, they create homemade comic books, one of which is the Captain Underpants series.

And being as they are the school’s most creative students, that makes them the mortal nemeses of the school’s principal Benjamin Krupp. Push comes to shove, and the boys end up using a novelty hypnosis ring (gained by mail order in the first book; gained from the “confiscated items” drawer in Mr. Krupp’s office in the film) to mess with him as payback. While this messing around is going on, they get the idea to turn him into Captain Underpants.

And so, a hero is born. And good timing, too, as a villain comes into the school, hoping to create a machine that will remove everyone’s sense of humor as revenge for having his name (Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants in the fourth book, which he legally changes to Tippy Tinkletrousers, which he’s known as in the ninth and tenth books; Pee Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants Esquire in the movie) be laughed at by everyone.

The movie maintains the general childlike spirit of the books. It does this through its writing, its animation style, and enjoyably over-the-top performances from the actors. Admittedly, it’s strange hearing voices as deep as those of Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch come out of fourth graders like George and Harold, but their energy fits the characters well.

Ed Helms does a great duality as the cruel Mr. Krupp and his alter-ego Captain Underpants, and Nick Kroll’s cartoonish foreign accent of probably intentionally indeterminable origin fits Professor Poopypants perfectly.

The animation matches the simplistic but defined art style of the books perfectly. Everyone perfectly resembles themselves from the books and moves like over-the-top CGI characters should. Any scene showing Mr. Krupp turning into and back from Captain Underpants is a marvel.

The humor is also very well-done, too. Sure, the bathroom humor is a bit stock, but this is coming from someone who outgrew that stuff years ago. However, there’s more to the movie’s humor than just that. There are jokes at the expense of public schools, jokes mocking the superhero genre in general, jokes mocking uncreativity, and there’s even an animation budget joke.

In general, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie would be a good movie to see this summer. One might end up feeling like a kid again while watching it.