David Soren calls Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, his adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s bestselling books for kids, subversive.
The animated film is the story of rambunctious fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch). Best friends, they write, illustrate and sell homemade comics about their favourite character, Captain Underpants. “Most superheroes look like they’re flying around in their underwear,” they giggle. “This guy actually does.” They are also pranksters so often in trouble there are two chairs outside the principal’s office labelled, “Reserved for George” and “Reserved for Harold.”
Soren says that wild temperament “is one of the things that made the books successful and controversial at the same time. I’ve never personally understood the controversy, specifically in the case of the books. There is a rebellious spirit to those characters. They are not little angels and I think that is part of why kids love reading them.”
George and Harold’s principal, Mr. Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms), is a grumpy old man who hates comics, Christmas and kittens among other things, and has a plan to put an end to the pranks and annihilate their friendship.
David Soren was born in Toronto and raised in Hamilton.
“They’ve got a terrible principal,” Soren continues, “who is doing horrible things to their school, cancelling music and arts and putting an electronic door opening in his office instead. (It’s good to) stand up to that kind of authority, it deserves to be questioned.
“These days it is not a bad thing for kids in general to have their own voice and stand up for themselves and have rights. I always saw that as a really inspiring part of those books and a key to their success.
“I think of my son now. He’s in fourth grade and in the earlier grades there was a lot more creativity, a lot more play in the education and suddenly it gets a lot more regimented. It gets more like school and it is sort of frustrating to watch how that can be beaten out of kids. You want to protect that aspect of creativity.”
The Toronto-born, Hamilton-raised animator has worked in Los Angeles for 20 years, working on films like The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run and Shrek, and writing and directing Turbo, the story of a snail who dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500. It’s a resumé that suggests he’s hung onto his childlike creativity.
“I think it is something I never lost. You need a little bit of that nonconformist attitude when you are an artist, and making movies in general. Especially when you’re trying to get a point of view across. Movies are best when they have a point of view and if they get too watered down or become too generic they cease to have an identity anymore.”
There’s no question Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has an identity. How many other movies feature a talking toilet or a musical Whoopee Cushion symphony?
“Obviously you can’t make a Captain Underpants movie without potty humour,” he says. “But we did hold ourselves to a very high standard. We would not go there unless it was truly very funny.”
When I compliment Soren on giving a character the wonderfully silly name Diarrheastein, he’s chuffed. “I will take that as a great compliment,” he laughs.