Growing up, my school bus ride from elementary school to home was about 20 minutes with stops. Most of my friends lived in a different part of town than I did, so they got home via Bus 1 or Bus 10. This left the burden of entertainment largely to myself, alone on Bus 3.
One of these days, my order from the Scholastic book fair (remember those?) arrived: A box set of Captain Underpants books. The series is more visual than verbose, so I took off the layer of cellophane and read The Adventures of Captain Underpants for the umpteenth time, finishing it as the bus doors opened in front of my house. It was these power-reading sessions that made Bus 3 such a fun place to be.
It's been years since I've even seen one of Dav Pilkey's famous books, but that hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for DreamWorks' Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. The first trailer for the film just came out today, and based on this quick, early look, it seems like the movie captures the spirit of the source material fantastically.
The spirit I'm talking about is that of creativity.
The books inspire kids to think for themselves in a way that few other pieces of youth-oriented media do. Shows like Zoom, for instance, showed kids a bunch of fun ideas and crafts they could create, but didn't necessitate originality. The plans were already there. It told you what to do, and youngsters love that (no, they don't). Movies like Big Hero 6 proved that kids are capable of wonderful creations, but modifying a healthcare android into a crime-fighting robot is too lofty a goal to feel realistic to a child.
But Captain Underpants was among a different breed--much like the "Idiot Box" episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, where Spongebob and Patrick create their own imaginary world in a cardboard box. The show didn't tell viewers to go out and do that on their own, but after watching that episode as a kid, I went up to the attic and looked for a cardboard box I could fit myself (and a while world) inside of.
That's what a good kid's show should do: not tell a kid to be creative, but inspire them to. I'm reminded of this exchange from the very non-kid-oriented movie Inception:
Arthur: "Okay, this is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say, 'Don't think about elephants.' What are you thinking about?"
Arthur: "Right, but it's not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake."
In the movie, the only way to get the team's target to do what they want is to hack his brain and convince it that external thoughts are actually its own. They do this not by infiltrating his dreams and repeating "You're going to do this, you're going to do that" like it's a mantra, but by creating a narrative that causes the brain to come to that conclusion by itself.
That's precisely what stories like Captain Underpants do. Kids know when an idea isn't their own, and are less motivated to act upon those they're told to undertake. Captain Underpants encouraged creativity by showing a pair of kids who had fun making their own worlds. What's also important is that they did it in an approachable way: they made hand-drawn comic books in their tree house. Those factors allowed Captain Underpants to exist not just on its pages, but in its readers' imaginations and actions.
After getting off of Bus 3 that day, I showed Mom my new books, grabbed a pencil and some printer paper, and started to brainstorm ideas for a DIY comic of my very own. I wanted to be like the characters I admired, because copying them was a plausible idea I had on my own and that was exciting to me.
I don't know if kids are still reading Captain Underpants, but regardless, this film adaptation brings our barely-clothed hero to a new audience. The trailer makes me think the movie will be a terrific representation of the books it's based on, and that's great news for a generation of kids who may not have a source of creative inspiration as genuine or fun as Captain Underpants.
Featured image: DreamWorks Animation
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