Growing up, there were two book series that particularly meant a lot to me, Josh Roepe. One was Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the other was David “Dav” Pilkey’s Captain Underpants. In the last year, both of these have been adapted into the visual medium, and both have been generally well reviewed by first-timers and long-time fans alike.
Why is this? What separates Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events from the 2004 dark comedy of the same name? Well, firstly, a lot of things. The Jim Carrey-led gothic-styled movie went through a heckuva back and forth during its pre-production process, swapping out different directors, letting go of Handler entirely, smooshing together three books and giving the plot a rushed and scattered feel, and ultimately just ended up a not-very-good movie. But let’s talk about the three books thing. How’d that happen? At the time, all those years ago, I wondered why Series decided to do that. The first two Harry Potter movies had already come out, each one being a pretty good and faithful adaptation of its source material. If Harry Potter could do that, why couldn’t ASoUE?
Don’t worry, I’ll get to Captain Underpants (2017) soon. Basically my argument is that Harry Potter was always intended to be a series adapted from one book at a time and A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) was never really going for that long of a franchise game-plan. There were a lot of budget concerns, and the director, Brad Silberling, wasn’t initially familiar with the books. So this was always pretty much a disaster in the making. Bad movie, 2.5/10. So when Netflix announced that they would be taking their own crack at it, with the ability to stretch out each book as it was meant to be told and keep Daniel Handler attached to the project, I, a lifelong fan, was thrilled. The dark yet comedic tone matches the books, and it’s overall super good even in spite of Neil Patrick Harris. You should watch it!
It’s really important to remain faithful to source material, at least in tone. Everyone knows the big examples of not staying true to originals that still ended up good, (I’m looking at you, The Shining), but like, yeah, I know, shut up, that’s an enormous anomaly and there are a whole bunch of reasons why it’s not a fair point to make (it’s basically not an adaptation at all but its own thing entirely, and also was similar enough in tone despite the huge plot changes, etc.). It’s important for an adaptation to remain true to the original source material not only to appeal to those who are familiar, but also because the reason people like those things in the first place is that they are, indeed, original. They’re fresh, people! 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, certified What Hollywood Is Missing fresh. So now let’s talk about Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017), and why it works.
George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are two fourth-grade best friends who write and draw their comic book series ‘Captain Underpants,’ bringing joy to their otherwise bored-to-death elementary school peers in the process, much to the displeasure of their fun-hating principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). From the beginning, this movie is great at establishing what’s at stake, with George and Harold narrating their daily lives at Jerome Horwitz Elementary (more like Penitentiary) and how much their friendship means to them, much like in the film’s paperback predecessors. It lays it all right out there, no-holds barred. Sometimes, (only sometimes), subtlety is not the way to go.
This is a tone that is always true in the books. Being so unsubtle that it’s subtle. So much of the Captain Underpants books are based on toilet humor, but they are always so aware of it that it’s smart. I love that shit! Captain Underpants (2017) uses this theme consistently throughout the movie, with characters addressing plot points as they come in an almost fourth-wall-breaking manner. However, this actually makes it a bit more insulting when the film inserts its obligatory Dreamworks “we have to have flashy & colorful dance sequences” bits that are so prevalent in animation nowadays.
I was surprised that Dreamworks did as well with this movie as they did. Not because Dreamworks doesn’t have some great franchises up its sleeves, (How to Train Your Dragon, and that’s basically it), but because even though a lot of their movies are good, they don’t refrain from taking enormous liberties for the sake of maintaining a Dreamworksish brand. That Captain Underpants has a style reminiscent of Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie (2015) is a huge step in the right direction, and it makes the kinds of jokes that are made throughout the movie land much harder. Some of the best parts of Captain Underpants (2017) actually come from its utter refusal TO stay on brand with Dreamworks animation. Changes in animation style offer some of the most hilarious sequences I’ve seen in a family friendly adventure/comedy, and fit well with George and Harold’s creative sensibilities. Imagine if the animation of The Boss Baby (2017) were to mirror that of its Marla Frazee picture-book origin – how much less obnoxious Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) references would be. I would even venture to say that if The Lego Movie (2014) was without its stop motion implementation, so much of the humor and tone would come across as tiresome. Tiresome and un-fresh, 5/10, 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The most obvious similarity here between A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and Captain Underpants (2017) is its combining of three books into one movie. While this was where A Series failed, Captain Underpants knew it was a necessity because of how short the original books are, and used that necessity to the movie’s advantage, playing with and combing plot points in fun ways that make sense in the world. There are no ridiculous killings-off of established guardians just so we can move on to the next one and finish all three books, but there are seamless combinings of Turbo Toilets and Poopypantses (though I do wish the Turbo Toilet 2000 had its own movie).
Captain Underpants (2017) is some serious wish-fulfillment for me. Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch have wonderfully whimsical chemistry as friends in a medium where exchanges in dialogue are perhaps the greatest challenge to perfect, and Ed Helms is a surprisingly perfect Captain Underpants. I’ve spent most of my life wondering why a feature-length adaptation of this personally beloved series hadn’t come yet, and if I knew that what I was waiting for was the technology to create such beautiful visuals and for the climate of the entertainment industry to offer as much creativity, I would have been happy to do so. But like with Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I have to ask myself: As a child reading and loving these books, would I have walked out of the theater happy? My answer, based on my then-dislike for The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004), is “Maybe nah.” But I was a pretentious little shit, and I would want to go back in time and punch myself in the face. The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, after re-watching it last year, is good.