INTERVIEW: Dav Pilkey, Author of “Captain Underpants” – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: Dav Pilkey, Author of “Captain Underpants”

It took two decades for author P.L. Travers to allow Walt Disney to bring her “Mary Poppins” books to the screen and it took about as long for Dav Pilkey to grant DreamWorks (or any studio) the rights to produce Captain Underpants—The Epic Movie which opened this weekend.

“I was approached throughout the run of the book series by some people who wanted to do a live action version and I thought, ‘Oh, you just don’t understand this at all, do you?’” Pilkey recalls. “Nobody wants to see a real old guy running around in his underwear. That’s really creepy. I really was saying no to everybody, or my agent was.

“When I met David Soren, we talked for about 20 minutes and I knew right away. He grew up making comics with his friends. He knew exactly what my books were about. He said, ‘There’s all this crazy insanity, but that’s not really what it’s about. There’s a heart to the book, there’s a lot more to it. And it’s about more than just friendship, it’s about creative friendships, where kids create together—and that becomes their superpower.’ And I thought, ‘Oh! He gets it!’”

A few alterations were made to the books’ canon to round out the characters, including giving Principal Krupp an awkward love interest in the school lunch lady and giving young heroes Harold and George a glimpse into Krupp’s drab home life that clues them into some reasons behind his attitude. But fear not fans—the movie is chock full of the book’s irreverent humor, inane wordplay and even references to regular book gags like scrambled school sign letters and flip books.

While Walt’s changes to the “Poppins” books (and pretty much anything else) made the famously prickly Travers bristle, such was not the case with Pilkey. “I was really happy about the changes,” he says. “I feel personally that there are multiple universes, so why can’t the books be one universe and the films be another universe? I wanted the heart, and I wanted what David was talking about–that it was really about creative friendships, how creativity and imagination can save the world. I wanted that to be in the movie. Once they nailed that down, I was fine.”

The pushback didn’t come from Pilkey, but there was some from those who expected Captain Underpants to look like so many other CG-animated features, with character designs that are getting progressively similar. “We were committed to translating Pilkey’s world to the screen,” said Mark Swift, who produced the feature with Mirielle Soria. “It’s so easy in CG to get caught up in putting so much texture on things, there are so many details you can add–but to try and keep it peeled back and simple, that was a little bit of a fight. We wanted to to keep the dot eyes in the lead characters, and to leave out the eyes in Professor Poopypants’ glasses. These are stylistic choices which are a bit rare in CG.”

The Captain Underpants stories were not born out of a series of franchise meetings or through years of testing and focus groups. They were just nutty little comics drawn on notebook paper by a school kid who never stopped building on to his ideas. Few if any of us could ever could ever imagine what it had to be like for Dav Pilkey when he first saw his creations burst on the big movie screen in a tentpole blockbuster.

“I was giggling and I was crying during the whole thing, but in a good way,” he says. “You just never think that’s going to happen when you’re in the second grade. That this little thing that you scribbled to make everyone in your class laugh is going to become a movie someday. That all these creative people are going to get together and put their heart and their love into it and turn it into something you never imagined. It’s like a dream.”

Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar

Greg Ehrbar is a two-time Grammy-nominated and Addy-winning writer/editor/producer, celebrating 30 years with The Walt Disney Company. Greg’s projects include national advertising, network TV, commercials, magazines and thousands of print ads and publications. Greg’s books include Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records; Jimmy Johnson’s Inside the Whimsy Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions; as well as Disney Parks merchandise; movie adaptations and records. Greg also appears on TV, home video, radio’s TV Confidential, Disney Parks Blog, cartoonresearch.com, Greg-O-Vision.blogspot.com and disneymusicemporium.com.
Greg Ehrbar
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  • Apparently, Chris Farley was rumored at one point to play the Waistband Warrior in the live-action film..