Okay, this is a silly movie. Early on we learn that Principal Krupp's alter ego, Captain Underpants, is "more powerful than boxer shorts!" and "able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie!" Later, Captain Underpants battles a foe by lobbing tighty-whities, slingshot style, at his opponent.
This movie aims to entertain boys, and a few girls, between the ages of six and 10. Virtually all of them are familiar with the popular Captain Underpants chapter books for young readers.
In fact, the film's plot seems to have been derived from two of the books: "Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants," CU# 4; and "Captain Underpants and the Retaliation of Turbo Toilet 2000," CU#11.
The story wrote itself. Evil Principal Krupp has driven all the joy out of life at Jerome Horowitz Elementary. "Hope Dies Here," says a sign on his desk. George and Harold, fourth-grade pranksters, write and illustrate comic books that caricature the principal and entertain their despondent schoolmates.
The two are surprised to find that a plastic ring found in a cereal box will hynotize the principal, turning him into a happy-go-lucky superhero. They are further surprised when, back in principal mode, Mr. Krupps hires a science professor named "Professor P."
When the professor's last name is revealed (yes, it's Poopypants), much mirth ensues among the students. This in turn reveals the professor's goal in life, which is to stamp out all laughter in children, and you can almost see why.
At this point, the movie starts going into ever-wackier spirals of unreality that are punctuated by scatological references, flying rolls of toilet paper and a really, really big scary toilet. George and Harold succeed beyond their wildest dreams and then realize that maybe their subversive success is not an entirely unmixed blessing.
As is the rule in children's movies, Lessons Are Learned, here by George and Harold and their superhero/principal. The credits roll with a song whose syncopation is this refrain:
Poopy Poopy Poopypants!
Poopy Poopy Poopypants!
The Captain Underpants books have been criticized for their vulgarity and failure of moral uplift. Author Dav Pilkey made his case for letting children read what they enjoy several years ago, albeit in an undistinguished forum. He's right.
And therein lies the rub. We keep making movies out of the best children's literature, a theme whose downside I discussed last year.
Maybe a Captain Underpants movie and many sequels were inevitable, given the tens of millions of CU books that have been sold. Maybe the movie will cause more young people to seek out the books, which certainly would be good.
But current American films move very fast, piling action on action and racing to big explosions and climaxes. In short, movies cater to, and possibly cultivate, short attention spans.
Going to a movie compares to reading a book as eating a full bag of Tostitos compares to having a nice dinner with family and friends. An occasional Tostitos binge won't hurt a person, but a steady diet of the stuff will.