Book Review: The Art of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie by Ramin Zahed

Awe-inspiring and just regular inspiring too. And a whole lot of fun.
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We can all agree that Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie was pretty sweet, right? It was cute, it was charming, it had a good message about friendship and being kind, and it was basically just a bunch of fart jokes for little kids. And isn’t that what life is all about? No, not fart jokes, but little kids. Laughter. Friendship. If the sound of a child’s laughter doesn’t warm your heart and put a smile on your face, I’m sorry, but there’s just something wrong with you. And nothing makes a child laugh harder than a good fart joke. Heck, even a bad fart joke. Any fart joke will do, in all honesty. 

The folks at Dreamworks did a great job translating the charm and toilet humor of Dav Pilkey’s popular series of children’s books into film and if you’ve ever wondered just how they did it, I’ve got good news for you - there’s a book about it. Even better, you’re reading a review of that book right nowThe Art of Captain Underpants has a long and unwieldy title and does a pretty good job of documenting the long and unwieldy process of transforming a popular book series into a popular film. A lot of effort went into matching the tone and keeping the charm of Dav Pilkey books intact while making the whole thing come to life and this book tells you all about it - with a lot of awesome pictures!

A big part of the beauty of this book is that it’s written for both kids and adults, and I’ll circle back around to that later, so don’t forget that I brought it up. The Art of Captain Underpants opens with a foreward by Mr. Dav Pilkey himself, told in the form of a comic book. Pilkey tells us about his own childhood, which doesn’t sound all that different from Harold and George, the two protagonists of the Captain Underpants books. ADHD and dyslexia were challenges for Pilkey but making comics was his way to escape the monotony of his humdrum school life, and luckily, he had parents who always believed in him. Obviously, the foreward doesn’t give us every detail about the man’s life, but the important things is the end result - a popular series of books and a film adaptation. This theme of inspiration and believing in yourself (and having a lot of fun doing it) is carried throughout Pilkey’s work and even manages to come through in this book, which is something else I'll circle back around to later, so don't forget that either, okay?

The Art of Captain Underpants walks the reader through each step in the process of transforming simple two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional characters. It’s easy to draw a couple of scribbly lines to represent Harold’s hair, but how exactly do you show that from more than one angle? How do you animate it and bring it to life? Pilkey’s drawings are very expressionistic and full of movement, but they're two-dimensional. So how do you actually make them move? How do you convince the viewer that school is the most boring place ever but still make the building look animated and fun? How do you find the delicate balance between realistic and cartoony? How the heck do you get those crazy proportions and noodley arms just right? The Art of Captain Underpants has all the answers and you get them in the form of huge illustrations, sketches, paintings, and storyboards.

The Art of Captain Underpants is seriously a lot of fun. Since the filmmakers put so much effort went into matching the humor and personality of the books, that same humor and personality shines through in this behind-the-scenes look as well. One gets the impression that the folks who made the movie had a lot of fun doing it. The film wasn’t based on any book in particular, so the creators mined the entire series for buildings, background characters, settings, and so on and so forth, giving viewers a representative cross section of what the world of Captain Underpants is all about. And since the whole thing was such a challenge…well, that’s sort of what it’s all about.

Remember when I said the book was written for kids and adults? And how Dav Pilkey had to overcome his own personal challenges and obstacles in life? Life throws a lot of challenges at you when you’re a little kid and when you overcome those and get a sweet job as an animator working for Dreamworks, guess what? Now you’ve gotta figure out how to make Harold’s hair make sense and it’s super hard. Life is all about challenges and working through them, whether you’re a kid who struggles to pay attention in school, an artist working for a big time animation studio, or a kid who has accidentally hypnotized your teacher into thinking he’s a character from a comic book you made up.

So let’s say you’re a kid reading this book, trying to figure out how the heck they made your favorite books into a movie and it’s just a concept that’s totally insane to you and you can’t even begin to wrap your little kid head around it… well hey, The Art of Captain Underpants is a pretty inspiring place to start.

And I didn’t even mention the cutaway schematics of the classroom, cafeteria, and treehouse. I barely wrote about the giant, painted two-page spreads or the variety of full color illustrations and concept art. Did I talk about the little background stuff, like the bottles of fictional soda, packages of made-up potato chip brands, and absolutely ridiculous local businesses that are littered throughout this book? Like I said, the whole thing is just fun to read!

Do you have a kid who likes Captain Underpants? Are you a kid who likes Captain Underpants? If so, I’m gonna go ahead and recommend The Art of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie to you. And now, thankfully, I’ll never have to type that long and unwieldy title ever again.  

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