It’s getting ‘Supa’ close! Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie swoops into theaters on June 2; the animated film, directed by David Soren, is based on Dav Pilkey’s comics-style series starring fourth grade friends Harold Hutchins and George Beard. The two accidentally hypnotize their mean and uptight principal Mr. Krupp, resulting in his transformation into Captain Underpants, the loveably doltish superhero character they invented. The film, from DreamWorks Animation, is voiced by Kevin Hart as George and Thomas Middleditch as Harold, with Ed Helms starring as Captain Underpants and Principal Krupp. It also features the voice of Nick Kroll as the villain Professor Poopypants.
The story of two boys who save the world through their love of comics and unbridled creativity has been a huge hit among middle grade readers since Pilkey published The Adventures of Captain Underpants back in 1997. There are now 12 books in the Captain Underpants series and three spinoff titles. The series as a whole has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. In a recent interview with NPR, Pilkey spoke about the origins of Captain Underpants. It all started after an incident involving a teacher who shared some characteristics with Principal Krupp: “She was not a very pleasant person,” Pilkey recalled. “But she was talking about something, and she happened to say the word underwear. And we all burst out laughing. And she got really, really mad. And she said, hey, boys and girls, underwear is not funny. And we all just laughed even harder. And so that’s where I got the idea from.”
Captain Underpants Challenges
For a series that features such unabashedly silly characters as Dr. Diaper, Wedgie Woman, and the Dandelion of Doom, it might surprise readers to know that Captain Underpants has garnered some serious controversy. In 2015, Arborwood Elementary School in Monroe, Mich., pulled copies of the 12th book in the series, Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot from its book fair. The reason behind the removal of that book: when Harold and George meet their future selves, adult Harold has a male domestic partner. The challenges to the series go back further—challenges that Pilkey himself has responded to.
In 2012 and 2013, the Captain Underpants series hit the top of the ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books List—eclipsing such adult titles as Fifty Shades of Gray. Pilkey responded to the challenges in 2014 in the Huffington Post, saying that the challenges to the series have less to do with its content and more to do with adults just not getting it. “Most of it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person,” he wrote. “There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out. We’ve all met people like that, haven’t we?”
Meet a couple of Captain Underpants’s biggest fan girls: Anamika Bhatnagar, Pilkey’s editor, and Rachel Coun, executive marketing director and global brand management, both at Scholastic. The two spoke with PW about the film, the qualities that make the series so immensely appealing to kids (and incidentally, might scare off some adults), and reading promotions connected to the movie release. According to Bhatnagar, though the series began 20 years ago, the enthusiasm level hasn’t waned: “A whole generation grew up reading the series who now have their own kids. An entirely new generation of fans have now grown to love Captain Underpants,” she said. The film might seem like a long time coming, but Bhatnagar considers the release to be “perfect timing,” as it coincides with the 20-year anniversary milestone this September.
Coun commented on the “global enthusiasm” that she sees brewing in anticipation of the movie—enthusiasm that Scholastic is harnessing at Scholastic Book Fairs with promotional materials like bookmarks, movie posters, and movie standees, efforts all geared toward encouraging kids to read the books before seeing the movie. Additionally, Scholastic and DreamWorks are holding a “Pranks for Good” contest, which invites readers to submit videos describing a prank that they would like to pull at their schools that would result in a “positive surprise” (emphasis on “positive”). The entrant with the winning prank idea will be provided with a screening of the movie at their school.
On the eve of the movie premiere, Bhatnagar and Coun have seen a bump in sales across the series as well as renewed enthusiasm in libraries, which means for them that the books are potentially reaching more and more reluctant readers: “Captain Underpants is a gateway [to reading]. It’s a world that is easy to dive into,” said Bhatnagar. She and Coun elaborated on the series’ enduring popularity, pointing to its humor, its highly kid-centric point of view, and its focus on the importance of imagination and friendship.
Though Coun believes that “kids are the key to Captain Underpants,” that doesn’t mean that she and Bhatnagar aren’t excited themselves: “We personally can’t wait to see the Captain on the big screen.” Bhatnagar credits DreamWorks for capturing the essence of the series, saying that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie delivers on the assurance “that you can be the heroes of your own stories.”