"The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants," born as a series of massively successful books by Dav Pilkey, has become a charmingly subversive, knockabout cartoon series, streaming as of Friday on Netflix.
Last year saw a big-screen adaptation, the computer-animated "Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie," but the series, also from DreamWorks Animation, is closer to the multi-form meta-fictional spirit of the books, which are as formally close to experimental literature as books for elementary school kids ever get — when it wants to break into a third dimension, it brings in clay figures or felt puppets or cutouts on Popsicle sticks.
Introduced at the top of each episode, as they are at the top of the books, are George Beard (Ramone Hamilton) and Harold Hutchins (Jay Gragnani).
"George is the kid with the tie and the flat top; Harold is the one with the T-shirt and the bad haircut. Remember that now," says narrator Sean Astin.
They are prank-loving fourth-grade students at Jerome Horwitz Elementary, where they are the principal nemeses of the school principal, Mr. Krupp (Nat Faxon), who sits behind a desk bearing the sign "Hope Dies Here" and is tallying their infractions, as numbers are called at a delicatessen counter; when they get to 500, he can expel them.
More significant, they have inadvertently hypnotized Krupp into becoming, at the snap of their fingers, a superhero named Captain Underpants — he wears only underpants and a cape; other pairs of underpants, pulled from the elastic of waistband of his tight, white Jockey-style shorts, are used as weapons. (Water turns him back to Krupp.) This is all covered in the theme song, which Astin will point out (and replay) in case you weren't paying attention.
The Captain comes in useful when with episodic reliability, through various science-fictional accidents that are more than likely our heroes' own fault, the familiar characters of an elementary school existence are transformed into monsters bent on destruction, or at least on giving out homework. These encounters are sometimes predicted, not in a magical way, by the comic books George and Herbert draw in their tree house.
And these are facts you may already know. You or someone related to you may have grown up on them, or grown young on them, as the case may be. The series has sold many tens of millions of books in 20 languages, raising objections among the easily scandalized along the way, for being funny about things kids find funny. Imagine Dick and Jane, say, breaking wind. (Run, Spot, run!) That sort of thing. The first episode is titled "The Frenzied Farts of Flabby Flabulous,” so there you are.
Overseen by Peter Hastings ("Animaniacs," "Pinky and the Brain," "Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness"), the show plays off some of the visual world-building of the movie, but is presented in a 2-D style more appropriate to Pilkey's jaunty drawings, and more than usually reminiscent of classic cel animation, with bold outlines and bright, angular, askew backgrounds. (Backgrounds are not something Pilkey typically bothers with.) As in the books, every episode is divided into chapters and contains a "comic-book" portion, rendered in childlike scrawl and narrated manically — maniacally? — by Hastings himself.
Nothing serves children better on the road to maturity — I say this as a one-time child fairly happy with how he turned out — than letting them know that the world is as absurd as they suspect it is, and that much of what has been constructed upon it is arbitrary and even stupid.
Like the books, which regularly issue warnings to the viewers of something potentially distasteful ahead — perhaps a kind of trolling of the series' critics — the cartoon keeps calling attention to the terms of its own construction, with lines like "We can't actually show the collision because that's not nice, but we can show you this big cloud of smoke and stuff drawn in an elaborate anime style — so cool," and references to "the red tablecloth cleverly established earlier in the scene."
The humor is smart and silly, qualities more closely linked than adult society likes to give out. (The show has something of the feel of "If 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' and 'Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide' had a baby," which, I know, could not happen.) There is a joke about "Iffypedia, the Free, Yet Very Questionable Internet Encyclopedia," and a series of hellish school dances with names like "Night of Magic Spelling Dictation," "Midnight Standardized Placement Test Jamboree" and "Enchanted Waiting Room." One of the boys fills out a 10,000-word paper by signing it with 2,011 middle names. So, he got caught. Whatever! There’s always tomorrow. This is good, healthy stuff.
‘The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7)