Based on Dav Pilkey’s novels, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, now playing in theaters across the U.S., is a delightful and hilarious feature-length cartoon about George (voiced byKevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch), two imaginative and mischievous fourth-graders who love working on their own superhero comic, named Captain Underpants. When their overtly strict principal, Mr. Krupp, threatens to split the two best friends into different classes, they hypnotize him to believe that he is the brave titular superhero of their comic in order to force him to reverse that decision. When an evil professor with an exceptionally funny name shows up at school with a mysterious plan, George and Harold have to mobilize “Captain Underpants” in order to stop this villainy. Paste spoke with the film’s director David Soren about the film.
Paste: I just went to the press screening, and it’s just one of those films that captures every age’s imagination.
David Soren: Excellent, my job is done then. I can retire.
Paste: Generally, what attracted you to the project to begin with? Your previous feature, Turbo, is a bit more of a traditional, inspirational…
David Soren: Underdog story…
Paste: Yes. This one is more zany, has absurdist touches, uses various different kinds of animation styles. It’s a hyper-energetic story that captures what it’s like to be a kid around the age of the two main characters.
David Soren: That’s nice to hear. Turbo and Captain Underpants are tonally very different movies. This movie, actually it wasn’t even a movie yet, came on my radar twenty years ago when I saw the book at a bookstore in LA. I had just moved there, and I stumbled across the very first book on a shelf. I picked it up and thought, “This looks pretty fun”. I started flipping through the pages and before I knew it, I was about halfway through the book right there in the aisle. I was completely smitten with it; I wished that I had come up with the idea myself. So, I was a fan from the first book. I have two kids of my own, a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old. I got to get reacquainted with the books by reading to them. They love them as well. We have a great time; we’re at hysterics reading them. So when Dreamworks acquired the rights to the books and they approached me to direct it, I was already a big fan. I was really excited to do it.
Paste: I’m a big fan of Nicholas Stoller’s Storks from last year.
David Soren: Nick is great.
Paste: He wrote the script for this, and it feels like you guys are carrying the mantle of that Looney Tunes kind of cartoon approach, where it’s a joke-a-second, very fast-paced, zany, absurdist…
David Soren: I think that Captain Underpants’ world especially stems from the books. It’s very cartoony in nature. Obviously, there are a lot of different ways you can interpret that, develop a look and an animation style for it. To me, it reminded me of the stuff I grew up on, like the Warner Brothers stuff, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, going back to Steamboat Willie, the early Walt Disney shorts with Mickey Mouse. There’s sort of a rubber hose quality to a lot of it. Dav Pilkey’s drawings reminded me of that, and it’s a good fit for that animation style. Our co-head of animation, Rune Bennicke, did some early animation tests along those lines, that quickly proved out that look. With the combination of the writing and the visuals, we were all excited to make a true cartoon, which is not common in features these days.
Paste: It’s an animated feature, but it feels like a feature-length cartoon first. That’s what makes it so much fun. That separates it from a lot of the other animated features.
David Soren: There’s been a big movement towards realism with animation. It was nice to run full speed in the other direction.
Paste: The design shows that, too. The CG animation has a tangible feel to it; the backgrounds feel real. On the other hand, the character designs do have that exaggerated, cartoony feel to them. How did you find that balance, as far as the design of the film is concerned?
David Soren: We were lucky in that the starting point was the books. Dav Pilkey’s not just a writer; he’s an illustrator. The books are filled with these really expressive illustrations. Our team, our production designer, Nate Wragg, became a Captain Underpants expert. He put together an archive of almost all of Dav’s illustrations. We just analyzed them, every detail of them, the names of the stores that he has, like “24-hour Bunion Removal” and “John’s House of Toilets”—things like that help define the tone, the world. Mr. Krupp’s desk, his chair, even the line quality of the drawings. We worked really hard to translate to CG without losing any of the looseness and the charm. That sort of similar approach was applied to the character designs, too. Bennicke did a great job of adapting those drawings, and bringing them into designs that really work three-dimensionally.
Paste: “Charm” is a key word here. It does feel like, if these kids got their hands on the kind of technology and the budget that you have, this is the kind of movie that they would come up with.
David Soren: That’s exactly what I was going for. I wanted this to feel like George and Harold were directing the movie, not me.
Paste: It’s relatable for kids. And even for adults it’s relatable, because we all know what it was like to be kids at school, where stuff that looks trivial to adults is highly dramatic and operatic to kids. That’s kind of what you capture here. Just the idea that they will be put into two different classes turns into this Shakespearean tragedy. You treat the smallest conflict around these kids as epic events. How did you decide on those moments, and did the relatable quality made you decide to do that?
David Soren: It’s a great question. The character story aspect of it was that we mined a story from the first four books. I didn’t feel like any one book in particular had enough meat on the bone to make a whole movie out of. It was key to create a storyline that could hold the whole movie, dramatically, and obviously also comedically. We kind of went over the top with this threat that the boys are going to be put in separate classes. For two best friends, this is “end of the world” stakes for them. The whole movie has a very exaggerated point-of-view about how these two boys feel the world, and also feel about their own situation, their own stakes. So that was really the goal, and I’m glad it came across. We tried to be fourth graders, we’re trying to show people what it was like to feel how it felt in fourth grade. That allows you to go on all these flights of fancy, get into the heads of these wildly imaginative fourth graders.
Paste: You really capture that during the first half of the movie. And then things start to get really fantastical and it turns into a bona fide superhero movie, with a bad guy and his lackey. Hilarious bad guy, by the way, especially kudos to Nick Kroll, who did the voice of Professor Poopypants.
David Soren: I love Nick Kroll and what he did on this movie. He made Professor Poopypants into the most ridiculous, over-the-top bad guy you could imagine. He just opened his mouth at an early table reading, and that crazy New Swissland accent came out. Everybody was in stitches.
Paste: It fits that kind of Looney Tunes antagonist mold, as well.
David Soren: Like a crazy Bond villain meets an Austin Powers villain, with Looney Tunes thrown in for good measure.
Paste: You have a take on the big epic battle between the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guy always has like a giant mech, machine, or whatever. In this case, the giant threat is something really funny, I don’t want to spoil it. You play around with the structure of a traditional superhero movie even as you poke fun at it. Especially around this time, when the audience is so oversaturated with…
David Soren: They can smell the formula with a lot of these movies these days, right? There’s definitely an over-inundation of superhero movies. It’s nice to be able to create an antidote, take the piss out of some of it, flip it on its head.
Paste: You’re going against Wonder Woman.
David Soren: That’s right. Two scantily clad superheroes going at it.
Paste: Yours is sexier, though.
David Soren: That’s debatable, but definitely dumber.
Paste: That’s for sure, in the best way possible.
David Soren: Dumber and funnier. I think he wins both of those battles.
Paste: Definitely. A lot of parents take their kids to superhero movies. And if they say, “This looks a bit more age-appropriate, but why should I go check it out in the middle of this oversaturated market?” What would you say to audiences who might ask that?
David Soren: On the surface, it’s a superhero movie. But really, it’s about these two fourth graders who create the superhero of their imaginations. I think the secret recipe for the success of the books over the past twenty years has been this really lovely and creative relationship between George and Harold. These two make comics. One’s the artist, the other is the writer. That’s really the success of the books, and hopefully the movie, too, is that it promotes creativity and tells the kids to pick up a pencil, come up with some ideas, tell a story, use your imagination. I think that’s so wonderful and it’s so accessible. It just means that everybody can create their own superheroes. As intense or as silly as you want them to be.