Movie Review – Captain Underpants
DreamWorks Animation has adapted the children’s novels by Dav Pilkey, which he began publishing in 1997. The story focuses on two fourth-graders in an elementary school run by a mean principal. The character design and animation at times is reminiscent of Scott Adams’ Dilbert comic strip. As much as Dilbert was a satire of corporate America, it could be argued that Pilkey’s work is a satire of public education.
Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets and Storks) wrote the screenplay and makes sure to include digs on how the arts have been cut in many schools and how teachers only teach to standardized tests. Pilkey doesn’t necessarily see public education as Kafkaesque as Adams sees corporate America, but Pilkey does see an authoritative and disciplinary aspect against which needs some pushing back, if not outright rejection. These aspects could be distilled down as simply a lack of fun in schools, but it’s the difference between those who think education should just be memorization of names and numbers and those who think education should be engaging children in some kind of entertainment.
Directed by David Soren in his sophomore feature, the movie walks a fine line between the age-old battle of funding cuts to arts in public schools. This movie though isn’t about learning theory and what exactly is the best way to reach young students and get them excited about whatever subject is being taught. No, this movie is mainly about the friendship between two boys who are artists in their own right, which is fine, but the movie crosses a line when it pits them against science or the pursuit of science, as if science is the true enemy. I much rather prefer Meet the Robinsons (2007), Big Hero 6 (2014) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014), which celebrate the pursuit of science and children as scientists.
Obviously, mad scientists or evil geniuses are stereotypical villains that comic books have used as tropes for decades. Yet, some of the greatest super-heroes like Batman and Iron Man were also scientists who valued knowledge and technology. It’s not that the bad guy is a scientist. The problem is how this movie treats science or technology. For example, an invention convention is depicted in such a depressing way in which no one is interested or excited at all, except for one student who is himself depicted as an unsympathetic character.
The Nobel Prize is also mocked. In the Nobel ceremony to award a scientist or inventor, the entire body is devolved into a bunch of laughing hyenas who have the sensibilities of the fourth-graders in question where toilet humor trumps everything. The whole idea of school is equated to a prison and by the end nothing about that equation is balanced to give any value to the institution of learning.
The movie pushes that nothing is more important than fun and friendship. There was a scene where I thought the story would take a turn, realize what it was doing and get a little bit more perspective. It’s a scene where the school’s front lawn is turned into a literal carnival with a ferris wheel and other amusement park attractions. The events of that scene lead to a conclusion that maybe making school fun can have consequences that aren’t good, but that lesson is brushed over and virtually ignored for the rest of the movie. Nothing about why school is really there gets redeemed. The children’s opinion about school being a prison doesn’t change at all.
Kevin Hart (Ride Along and Think Like a Man) stars as George Beard, a 9-year-old who is the co-founder of Treehouse Comix. Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley and Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero) co-stars as Harold Hutchins, the other co-founder of Treehouse Comix. George and Harold literally make comic books in a treehouse in someone’s backyard. George does the writing and Harold does the illustrating. Their signature comic is a super-hero named Captain Underpants, a spoof of Superman.
What’s interesting is that despite Captain Underpants becoming real for George and Harold, he’s not the one who saves the day. George and Harold are the ones who defeat the villain. In that, the movie is great for child empowerment and for inspiring young people that they don’t have to be afraid and they can handle even the most harrowing situations. The fact that we never see George and Harold’s parents perhaps speaks to that. Yet, the victory is achieved not through a specific action but by them just being who they are.
Who they are though are just two boys who laugh at the word Uranus. Laughing at a planet’s name, as well as Captain Underpants’ catchphrase “Tra-La-Laaa,” are the only take-away here. Admittedly, the thing that threatens the friendship of George and Harold is not a big deal. Pilkey reveals in later novels that Harold is gay, which might explain why Harold has no problem spending all day drawing images of a man in nothing but his tighty-whities. Unlike ParaNorman (2012), that bit of information isn’t even revealed here, but if the movie had and dealt with it, that would’ve been something. Otherwise, this movie doesn’t really have much substance.
Rated PG for mild, rude humor.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 29 mins.