The Captain Underpants Movie Improves on the Books by Introducing Empathy

Two superhero movies were released last weekend. Wonder Woman, which I hear was amazing and I will definitely watch later, and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, a movie based on the book series that first got me reading as a child. Since you can’t beat nostalgia, my brothers and I decided to watch our first favourite super hero adapted to the big screen, and boy was it a pleasant surprise. Charming animation, surprisingly great voice work (with Kevin Hart in particular giving a great performance), and one key element that actually elevates it above its source material: Empathy. This movie had a big heart, it reminded me of a time during my childhood when I actively tried to not think about other people’s, especially adult’s, feelings and then got confused when I was forced to confront them. This movie isn’t centred on that dynamic (it’s centred on the importance of friendship and creativity), but it addresses it in a way the original books never did.

The original Captain Underpants books were the ultimate kids stories. It was very black and white, kids vs. adults, raw creative craziness against rigid authoritarian principles battling it out in each installment. Part of what made the books so appealing to kids is that they weren’t there to teach you anything (the purposefully poorly spelled comic sections were a testament to that), they were purely focused on capturing our imagination and watching nasty adults get taken down a peg. And that’s the thing about the antagonists in the original books, they were cruel adults that the kids often ridiculed until they gained some sort of power, only to be brought down by Captain Underpants in an adorably brutal fashion anyways. Even Captain Underpant’s alter ego, Principal Krupp, was an irredeemably nasty person that we were all just waiting to see get snapped into his tranced underwear wearing state. In the end this all made sense, because the series presented the world through a specific, child-like lense. The thing about kids is that they’re all kind of cruel themselves. They don’t think about other people’s feelings or why they are the way they are like adults do, people are either “good” or “bad”. Captain Underpants was perfect for kids with big imaginations learning to read, but if it was going to be adapted into a movie it would have to grow.

If you’re still reading this and you aren’t familiar with the books or the movie, bear with me. The plot of this film follows a similar arc to the fourth book in the series, The Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, where a scientist named Professor Poopypants transfers over to George and Harold’s (the 4th grade protagonists of the Captain Underpants franchise) school and tries to teach there after being laughed out of college after college for having a dumb name. When the kids at the school relentlessly bully and mock him, he snaps and goes insane, vowing to shrink the whole planet using a device that was original supposed to go towards helping the world. The book ends with him being beaten by Captain Underpants and hauled off to jail. As a kid it was fun to see a ridiculous adult taken down a peg, but that sort of story wouldn’t fly these days because it’s just kids relentlessly picking on a man until he snaps, and then being sent to the authorities after his rampage is thwarted. I’m not going to tell you the movie made Poopypants a complex character, but they did add a nuance to what can be taken from him.

His backstory in the film is similar with one key difference. He was going to be awarded a Nobel prize for his scientific achievement, but upon reading his name, the audience burst into hysteric laughter. But even through the laughter, they still wanted to give him the prize, but his ego couldn’t handle it so he rejected it. His big plan in the film is to remove everyone in the world’s sense of humour so no one will ever laugh at him again. He comes to blows with our heroes because they uncover his real name after he tried to hide it and revealed it to his whole class, causing him to become obsessed with getting even with them. In the climax of the film, there’s a key scene where they try to make amends with Poopypants. The main characters apologize for treating him so horribly and try to give him their perspective on things. His name is Poopypants, people are never not going to laugh at that, so the best course of action is to learn how to take yourself less seriously. In the book, Poopypants seemed doomed from the start. He had a dumb name and everyone treated him horribly because of it. In the movie, he has a dumb name and people think it’s funny, but his life falls apart because he could never learn to laugh at himself. Just like the main characters, he created things for living, but he was always trying to make it about himself. The lesson here isn’t that people with dumb names should be made fun of, it’s that people, especially creative people, should learn how to get over themselves and laugh once in awhile.

The movie shines a similarly empathetic light on Captain Underpant’s alter ego, Principal Krupp, and they do it by explaining his cruelty with the simplest of reasons: He’s lonely. He’s a sad, middle aged man, and the only thing he has to look forward to in life is matching wits with a couple of 4th grade pranksters. It’s not much, but seeing the main characters come to an understanding about him is just enough to get the point across. All kids realize this sooner or later, but adults are people too, fallible, weak, and insecure just like them. Being creative and developing your art is important, and this movie hammers that point in, but love, friendship, and understanding are too, and often times they coincide with one another. Definitely not the kind of lessons I thought I’d be taking from a Captain Underpants movie, but I’m glad that a new generation of kids will be learning them.

“I’m telling!”

– Melvin Sneedly, Captain Underpants. Voiced incredibly well here by Jordan Peele.

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