How cultural critiques in ‘Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie’ surprised the crap out of me

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 11.42.37 PM.pngPotty humor, fart jokes – these have never been my thing.

Even in childhood, which is normally a kind of golden age for scatological humor, I remember feeling condescended to every time a kids’ movie or party performer resorted to passing gas for laughs. (Ever the cultural critic-in-training, I thought the pint-sized equivalent of, “Really? That’s all you’ve got? Maybe you should put in a little more effort.” And then I probably yawned, like a pretentious little jerk. But seriously. Mini-me kind of had a point.)

So, resolved: I’ve long been dubious about the comedic value of poop, pee, and farting, which has made parenting young kids – who are constantly talking, and cracking up, about these very things – an eye-roll-inducing trip. It’s begun to feel like ironic karma, as has my two daughters’ longstanding affection for Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books.

You know where this is going, right?

Yep. This mom that made a rule a few years back about “no potty words at the table when we’re eating” found herself in a multiplex theater on opening day for “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” Because “Tra la la!!” – the hubs needed to go to a work thing, and taking the kids to an air conditioned theater after school sounded like an easy, welcome escape hatch.

And I’ll admit, I wasn’t spellbound. With the exception of a background “love interest” character, girls and women are not really part of this world; and as is often true with many kids’ movies, I repeatedly thought, “God, wrap it up, already!”

But then, just three days later, I participated in A2 Algonquin’s “Local Art as Revolution” conversation, and somehow, after talking about Dadaism, and how perhaps – given the increasingly elusive nature of truth and meaning in our current age – conditions were right for a dadaist revival, we arrived at the topic of Captain Underpants. As one does.

For another Algonquin participant, Jason Schnabel, had seen the movie with his kid, too, and noted the way the animated movie had comedically, but quite pointedly, conveyed its bleak, school-as-prison vision. (He voiced a too-good-to-leave-out quote: “I came for the poop jokes and stayed for the philosophy.”) A washed-out palette set those scenes’ visual tone, and catatonic, obedient kids filed into and out of their school.

While watching the movie, I’d thought this to be maybe a too-oppressively-dark artistic choice for a kids’ movie. But during the course of this later conversation with other adults, I realized that the imagery not only made me remember that that’s how kids often feel about school; it also got me thinking about the function of youth education in America. There’s of course been much discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline, and how poor students of color often get caught up in it; yet there’s also a sense that in capitalist America, one of the schools’ primary functions is to produce obedient worker bees to further build on our country’s wealth.

I certainly didn’t go to “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” expecting this kind of institutional critique, but once a conversation on this topic got going, I realized this dorky animated kids’ movie was subversive in a number of pretty terrific ways, too.

  1. George and Harold’s friendship anchors the story. Like the far more adult comedy “Superbad,” “Captain Underpants” is ultimately a paean to male friendship. There’s a reason that the worst threat that the boys’ nemesis, Principal Krupp, can throw at them involves separating the boys into two different classes. (Lest we underestimate the profound heartbreak of that move, there’s an imagined sequence where whole galaxies stand between the boys after the proposed split.) The movie celebrates the unabashed love these boys share as soulmate friends – with none of the macho anxiety and self-conscious posturing I’ve come to expect from films and books – who live next door to each other. 
  2. Art is depicted as a crucial means of expression and escape for kids. The thing that really glues the boys together is storytelling through words and pictures. They collaboratively create comic books – hence the original idea for a superhero named Captain Underpants – and not only is this their main form of play, but when Principal Krupp falls under their hypnotic power, they make him reverse the decision he’d made about spending money on a high-tech security system instead of maintaining the school’s arts and music program (which, by the way, in our larger culture, is often depicted as traditionally “feminine,” and thus less worthwhile and valued within education). By movie’s end, the boys – still in the same class, of course – are getting to pursue the kind of creative projects they love in school, where things suddenly don’t look so drab and bleak anymore.
  3. Race in this interracial friendship is a non-issue. Series author Dav Pilkey gets all the credit for creating, in his inaugural Captain Underpants book (1997), an utterly sympatico interracial friendship, thereby providing young kids a model for what that looks like. As recent months have shown, we are light-years from being “post-racial” in America, and the specter of slavery haunts us still. (It probably always will, frankly.) But as some communities slowly become more integrated and diversified, it’s nice to think that kids may have George and Harold in their minds, and thus be more open to friendships with kids who don’t necessarily look like them.
  4. There’s some sly critiques of our skewed values. The movie’s villain, Professor Poopypants, uses a shrink ray on the school that results in “tiny teachers whose paychecks reflect the value society puts on education.” Touché, Poopypants. Touché.
  5. The villain’s thin-skinned vulnerability will sound, well, familiar. Poopypants doesn’t have a Twitter account (that we hear about), but his objective is to eradicate laughter. Why? Because his name – which, in its entirety, is Pippy Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants Esquire – has always invited giggles. So instead of learning to laugh at himself (or just changing his name?), he decides to take aim at humanity’s means of expressing joy. Because of course he does. I understand, of course, that this movie was likely years in the making, but its release in our current political moment is kind of uncanny.
  6. The boys, in victory, show compassion for their former oppressor. After Poopypants’ plot is thwarted, George and Harold – who’ve noticed that a lunch lady and Krupp have eyes for each other, but are both too shy to speak up – play matchmaker. Talking with each other, the boys decide that Krupp might be kinder in general if he were happier in his own life. A pretty evolved, sweet outlook for two young ones.

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