There is nothing inherently significant about the end of a year, symbol as it is of the end of a cycle begun from an arbitrary point. The stars have no recognition of the fact that we have reached the same point we were relative to the sun 365 days ago, and yet it is these moments we choose as waypoints, for reflection and looking towards the future. We can reassess where we’ve been since the last moments of collective reflection, as seen through the pervasiveness of Top 10 lists and best of the year claims.
Critics and laymen and film people in between have been using this time to make claims of the greatest cinematic works that 2017 had to offer. There is a necessary subjectivity to such lists, and yet often there is a lot of overlap. There is a sense of consensus in the most prestigious opinions — nobody watching these lists will miss the titles Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, The Phantom Thread, or Get Out, some of the films that just keep showing up in lists of acclaim.
Unfortunately, there will always be works buried because they were not quite up there in the rankings. There’s only so much room in a list of 10 movies and so many movies just keep coming out every year. Time is the ultimate eraser, fading away that which has not been singled out for our collective memories. As we hold on to pieces of important cinema, it is crucial that we not forget about Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.
The subtitle alone is damning, implying another franchise of animated films that it feels like nobody asked for. The Captain Underpants book series began 20 years ago and concluded in 2015 with the twelfth novel, Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, without much of a clamor for a big screen adaptation. When the film was released in June, surrounded by Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Dunkirk, War For the Planet of the Apes, and so many other acclaimed and/or big-name productions, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie came and went without much noise. As of this piece’s writing, the film sits with a 69/100 Metascore and an 86% Rotten Tomatoes score among critics. Still, it is a film to be remembered.
The Captain Underpants movie is joyful, especially when it comes to creativity. The Dreamworks logo is sung along to (“nyeh nyeh nyeh, nuh nuh nuh…”) by protagonists George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), followed immediately by a studio logo of their own, Treehouse Comix Inc. George and Harold make comics together, and their artistic endeavors are part of Captain Underpants’s structure. The mostly 3D animated movie also includes use of hand drawn animation, traditional 2D animation, sock puppets, and flipbooks as methods of storytelling, offering the audience an opportunity to see childhood imagination through its various potential outlets. The boys create comics as an outlet for creativity, but also as free entertainment for their classmates.
George and Harold care about the students of their school, Jerome Horwitz Elementary, and do what they can to “free the children” from the tyrannical reign of Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) and the enforced doldrums of education. In this school, one boy plays a mournful prison harmonica tune, another puts himself into a locker. A mandatory Saturday assembly has kids missing a day off so they can see such inventions as a sock matcher, an electromagnetic lint collector, and the “Binder Binder,” for when you just can’t quite find space for your numerous binders.
Driven by a delightful musical theme, subtle sound effects, little animations for minor moments, and an appreciation for the dramatics of childhood and animation, Captain Underpants has fun as George and Harold save the school and themselves from melancholy and despair. The two speak to the camera and interact with the filmic world they inhabit, discussing the montage of their pranks, hopping through a split-screen, and concluding with credits 15 minutes into the movie. The central threat of the movie is that the two protagonists will be put into separate classes, and the accompanying horror at the prospective end of George and Harold’s friendship is the kind of grand fear that comes with elementary school. The two friends enjoy each other’s company and the movie revels in partaking in these moments.
It’s understandable why Captain Underpants is not on any of the big Top 10 lists. Quiet marketing aside, the film is full of juvenile humor and childishness, with a weak third act and a villain who can at times be grating. It’s the kind of film that plenty could have written off as good enough, moving on to celebrate other summer entries instead.
Film discourse tends to amplify the excellent and the bizarre, forgetting that which stands out less so. Dunkirk was highlighted for its director’s obsession with watching the film on the largest screen possible, Justice League for its digitally removed mustache, and The Snowman for its bizarre advertising campaign. Discussion of movies online is a mix of news cycle and meme culture, as new material washes away the old and inside jokes get built upon and expanded, while everything else evaporates. There is nothing close to an exact science that one could use to figure out how to create buzz about a movie — why was the digital removal of a part of Henry Cavill’s body more prominent than the same for Armie Hammer? The internet can be untrustworthy and picky when it comes to celebration or appreciation.
This is why it’s important to highlight such a joyful and caring film that fell through the cracks. If a collective community of film lovers misses out on something special, it is the job of those who connected to that something special to speak back and say “Look, you missed something.” Instead of listing the 10 worst films of the year (in lists which tend just to include the over-hyped and disappointing, not truly analytical of the concept of “worst”), why not find those hidden gems before time washes them away?
Captain Underpants is indeed juvenile, from its 1812 Overture of farts, burps, belches, and whoopie cushions to its plot-turning reference to the protagonists’ enjoyment of the word Uranus. Captain Underpants knows what it is: a childish movie for children and the children inside all of us. It is a story written by its participants, children who take inspiration from Star Wars, Superman, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It is hard not to get on board as George and Harold tell their story in Flip-O-Rama, showing two-frame animation by flipping a page back and forth, even accidentally ripping one of them by pulling too hard. Captain Underpants is by no means a film for everyone, but it is one for people who care.
Special moments in this film are those which encourage creativity and expression. George and Harold flip coins to performers, reopen an arts program (originally closed due to budget constraints caused by Krupp’s installation of an expensive automatic door), and ensure that the 1812 Overture piece is performed, followed by onscreen acclaim that includes “Rotten Potatoes: Certified Fresh.” The villain, Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), wants to destroy children’s laughter and the school is filled with signs like one that says “LIFE IS HARD GET USED TO IT!” There is a clear opposition of childhood and adulthood here, and for George and Harold, adulthood is “the stuff of nightmares.” The hinted boredom of being an adult recalls a video tweeted by Ollie McKendrick, who complains about being an adult, “it involves buying things called ‘3-tier slimline airers’ and…this is as good as it gets.”
Captain Underpants is not for the nitpicking viewers with no imagination. A CinemaSins mentality to criticism (one already severely problematic) would not match up well against this film of men getting hit by cars and getting up fine, of powers gotten through the nuclear waste of a cafeteria’s leftovers, or of a “hypno-ring” from a cereal box actually working. It is for the light of heart, finding joy in the film’s storytelling nature; it rains when it’s sad, the plastic toy has a dark origin, and the separation of best friends is the end of the world.
Even if you, dear reader, find no connection with this delightful film, I implore you to find movies that move you and make sure they are not forgotten. Roger Ebert opened his Top 10 list with the line, “If I must make a list of the Ten Greatest Films of All Time, my first vow is to make the list for myself, not for anybody else.” It is not our job to please others by including movies in our lists that we could not connect with, if only because of their acclaim. It is up to us to find connections in a dark auditorium or on a bright computer screen, to create our own canons of meaningful works. Time feels no responsibility to remind us of the great works of the year. But just as we find significance in our circumnavigation around the sun, we can discover the importance of certain movies for ourselves, even if they’re not on somebody else’s list.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox