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Why I'm An Unapologetic Middle-Aged 'Captain Underpants' Fangirl

Author Dav Pilkey seen at DreamWorks Animation and Twentieth Century Fox "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie" Los Angeles Premiere at Regency Village Theater on Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Eric Charbonneau/ AP)
Author Dav Pilkey seen at DreamWorks Animation and Twentieth Century Fox "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie" Los Angeles Premiere at Regency Village Theater on Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Eric Charbonneau/ AP)
This article is more than 4 years old.

In the entire world, you might have found only one middle-aged woman sitting alone in a movie theater on a weekday afternoon this month for the premiere of "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie."

That would have been me.

This could take some explaining.

I wasn't there for the popcorn. I had no visions of artistic transcendence. And even I, cringe-worthy extrovert that I am, was not on a mission to meet and bond with the strangers staring up at that same screen.

Then what made me buy that ticket?

I mean, sakes alive, I'm a grown woman with a quasi-empty nest and I hightailed it solo to a flick for the grade school set. OK, more accurately, to a flick for the juvenile contingent and also for millennials reliving their halcyon youth.

Why did I go?

How could I not?

The older I get, the more I find myself trying to honor and celebrate pretty much everything and everyone who delivers — or delivered — joy to me and my family.

I needed to deliver the ol’ maternal fist bump to the source of so much sunshine.

Joy is not a strong enough word for what blanketed my household upon the arrival of the Captain Underpants series of chapter books. Pure-d euphoria, unfiltered? That sounds about right.

“The Adventures of Captain Underpants: The First Epic Novel” was published 20 years ago. My sons were right smack dab in the “target demo” bulls-eye. A first grader and a preschooler, they lived at the intersection of smart and silly.

Along came Captain Underpants, fighting for Truth, Justice and All That is Pre-Shrunk and Cottony! Tra-la-laaaa!

My guys have never laughed more. The books explode with anarchic hilarity and anti-authoritarian hijinks. The stories stand up and cheer for creativity and imagination. And every installment offers witty introductions to literary tricks of the trade. Back in the day, I’d hear escalating cackles from down the hall, and I’d shuffle on over to the bedroom door to peek at these goofballs reciting from the canon:

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“Boy,” said George, “we sure have tested the limits of science today!”

“Yep!” said Harold, “and the limits of our readers’ willing suspension of disbelief!”

Like kids everywhere, they did not stop at repeating their favorite lines. They also acted out the parts and devised entirely new Underpantsian escapades. An ordinary day around the apartment might involve brothers wearing nothing but Fruit-of-the-Looms and capes, while flinging a spare tighty-whitey into the rotating blades of the ceiling fan.

Motherhood does not get much better than that.

Part of author Dav Pilkey’s genius is that he meets children where they are and transports them to a land beyond. Captain Underpants books are unusual in their appeal both to bookworms who could already read on their own — my guys, for example — and to the book-resistant. It’s something like a miracle, the way these little paperbacks create gung ho fans out of kids who’ve struggled with learning to read or with “meeting behavior expectations” or with that whole confounded going-to-school deal.

No good deed goes unpunished. As worthy as they are, and as popular as they are, the Captain Underpants books have been widely banned from a range of educational institutions and libraries. Naysayers have dismissed the novels as inappropriate, or as — heaven forfend — bathroom humor.

Small wonder, then, that Pilkey saves some of his more choice character names for odious grownups. Miss Creant, Mrs. DePoint, Mr. Meaner, Miss Anthrope ... and the list goes on. As a vocabulary building tool, the Captain Underpants oeuvre is sheer devious brilliance.

These raucous and intelligent books struck chords in my relatively mild-mannered children, and helped attune them to a life as connoisseurs and practitioners of a lot of what I also hold dear: comedy, fiction, puns, friendship and fighting the powers that be.

For all of these reasons, and for the memories of the Captain-Underpants-induced delirium that gripped us all, I really had no choice but to hit the multiplex on day one. I needed to deliver the ol’ maternal fist bump to the source of so much sunshine.

And I’m glad I did. The animated feature comes close to capturing the go-for-broke ethos of the books, though it leaves out some of the richest details and wordplay. It hints at the inventive abandon of the novels, but doesn’t quite rise to that level. Still, folks who’ve read the Dav Pilkey collection will get a kick out of the film.

Sure, I worry a bit that people might see the Hollywood product and feel satisfied, unaware of or indifferent to the treasures awaiting them in print. More fundamentally, though, watching a film — any film — is passive. And in this case, the experience simply can't compare to the thrills of anticipation and discovery in turning the pages to find out what comes next in, oh just to take a for instance, “Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds).”

And by the way, in case you were wondering, the names of the extraterrestrial villains in that story still make us snort: Zorx, Klax and ... Jennifer.

Ah, these sons of mine have grown up, but they haven’t grown out of the good stuff.

And this month they both assured me that, had they been in town and schedules permitted, they would have gone to the movie with me. They would have matched me grin for grin and would not even have minded if I got a little misty at the memories unleashed. That in and of itself feels like a victory. Maybe not quite as epic as the defeat of Professor Poopypants, but I’ll take it.

Tra-la-laaaa!

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Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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