captain underpants and the particularly poignant plot of precious partnership, or the joys of friendship & collaboration

I’ve been in a pretty deep depressive hole for the last few weeks. I don’t want to do anything, and I hate myself for it. I feel like I should want to do things– what’s the point in existing if we’re not doing things, right?–, so I judge myself to be a big, lazy idiot when I can’t come up with something “meaningful” to do. Mostly I’ve been watching my same, favorite YouTube videos over and over again, and hating myself for not having any ideas for my own content. To quote Bojack Horseman, “You stupid piece of shit.”

HOWEVER. Last week something made me genuinely excited and happy, which gave me a little bit of hope for my future. Last week I saw two superhero movies that I hadn’t seen before! Guys, superhero fatigue is hardcore not a problem I am experiencing. Bring ’em on.

There are a million wonderful pieces about the amazing, record-breaking Black Panther out there, so I’m going to instead talk about the other movie I saw. This one came out last summer, and sort of slipped through the box office cracks. I’d completely forgotten about it until a good, trusted friend when it comes to these sorts of things (and most things, really) let me know that it was on Netflix. So, last Wednesday night, depressed and lethargic and thoroughly blergh, I watched Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, and it ended up being one of the best self-care things I’ve done for myself in a really long time.

Guys, have you seen Captain Underpants?! It’s so fun! If you read the books when you were a kid, the movie does not disappoint at all. Not since The Return of the King have I cared so much about a film adaptation getting its final line right, and Captain Underpants nailed it. Dav Pilkey’s books contain such a purity of silliness, and I think the movie gets that tone exactly right.

And, I mean, yeah. You read the title. Potty humor is where a lot of this movie’s joy lives, which is very true to the source material. What I so appreciated about the Uranus and whoopie cushion jokes of Captain Underpants is that they were never accompanied by a wink. The potty humor isn’t trying to be subversive or cool. Making fart noises with your armpit is just really funny when it’s a relatively new discovery! I really want you to give this movie a chance, and I don’t want  the underpants to scare you away.

It’s a shame to me that I’d ever forgotten Captain Underpants was happening. I wish I had seen it in theatres. It opened on June 2 last year alongside Wonder Woman, so, UNDERSTANDABLY, superheroic filmgoing priorities were elsewhere. But where were we the next weekend when The Mummy opened?! Tell me about your stuff, DreamWorks! Come on! Captain Underpants did pretty well with critics, despite not doing very well at the box office with a total of $125.3 million. It’s currently 86% Fresh on RottenTomatoes. Compare that to the inexplicably Oscar-nominated The Boss Baby’s 52% and 498.4 million at the box office. There is very little justice in the mainstream animated feature world.

Okay, enough of me trying to convince you of this movie’s critical pedigree while simultaneously running a smear campaign against The Boss Baby. We can do that anytime. Let’s go get coffee.

Captain Underpants is ultimately less about the titular hero’s escapades, and more about the friendship between his two creators. George Beard and Harold Hutchins are best friends with a capital BFF. The movie depicts the origin story of their friendship as a shared moment of joyous laughter at something silly. They’ve been inseparable ever since, spending all of their time outside of school in George’s treehouse, which serves as headquarters for Treehouse Comix, Inc.

George is a writer, and Harold is an artist. Together they collaborate on comic books, the best of which star Captain Underpants. If you’re not familiar with the books, George and Harold  use a 3-D Hypno Ring from a cereal box to hypnotize their mean elementary school principal Mr. Krupp into believing that he’s actually Captain Underpants. As Vision points out in Captain America: Civil War, “Our very strength invites challenge.” Once Captain Underpants springs to pre-shrunk, cottony life, it’s inevitable that supervillains also find their way to the halls of Jerome Horowitz Elementary School, resulting in all sorts of action-packed shenaniganry.

It doesn’t end up being the nefarious plot of Professor Poopypants that poses the greatest threat to our heroes, though. That worst case scenario is introduced much earlier in the story, when Mr. Krupp finally has proof of George and Harold playing a prank at school. Their punishment is to be put in separate classrooms.

The tragedy of that fate is played so sincerely in the movie, and I love it. Was there anything worse than something coming between you and your best friend in elementary school? When I was in elementary school, my family moved every year until I was in the 3rd grade. The fear of going into the school year without a best friend consumed me. I worried about it so much that I point blank asked the girl sitting beside me on the first day of 1st grade if she would be my best friend. Not a great line, on my part.

I did always end up with a best friend for each of those elementary school years, and leaving them behind was the saddest part of moving. Pre-Internet, it was hard to keep up with kids in different states, especially if your parents hadn’t formed a particularly close bond. I’m sure that there are more independent, determined elementary school kids out there who keep all of their friendships alive across moves and the end of summer camps, and I applaud them all. Elementary school best friendship is beautiful and it is powerful.

Also, I really appreciate that the close friendship between these two little boys– one black, one white– is played just as genuinely and lovingly as any onscreen friendship I’ve seen between little girls. I’ve never been a little boy, so I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that a best friendship between boys that has nothing to do with sports becomes trickier territory as one gets older. Because, you know, homophobic assholes.

The core of George and Harold’s frienship is their artistic collaboration. At a time in my life when creating anything feels totally pointless if I can’t one day profit off of it, it was a big relief to be reminded, “Oh, yeah! Making up stories is fun! That’s why you do it in the first place! Cool!” I was also reminded that all of the best things I have created have been shared with others. A friend who pores over a notebook of ideas with you for hours on end is a friend for life. I’ve been really fortunate to have many of those friends throughout my life, and Captain Underpants took me right back to those times.

Captain Underpants reminded me that collaboration is really important to me, and that I haven’t been doing much to cultivate it in my own artistic life. It also reminded me that making stuff should be fun. George and Harold share their comics with their appreciative classmates, but they’re mostly focused on telling the stories that they want to tell. Creating the art they want to see in the world. Finally, it reminded me that, while I’ve achieved some artistic moments in my life of which I’m terribly proud, nothing in my life has ever felt better than the times when I’ve been hunched over, tears rolling down my face, laughing my ass off alongside my best friends.

These are all things that I logically know all the time. But those logical, reassuring thoughts are always the first victims of a Big Bad Depressive Episode. Sometimes I need something big and silly to distract my asshole of a brain. If you’re at all similar, I really recommend this movie. Captain Underpants entertainingly coaxed those thoughts out of their prison in my brain, and made me excited about creating again. I don’t really have an idea yet, but I know people with whom I like working. Maybe we can come up with something neat together. And even if we don’t, that time hanging out and brainstorming and laughing will never be time wasted.

Tra la laaaaaaaaaaa!

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