Home > Reviews > CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS – Theodore Shapiro

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS – Theodore Shapiro

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’m so out of touch with children’s popular culture these days that, prior to a few weeks ago, I had never even heard of Captain Underpants, and had no clue that they made a film about him. The character comes from the enormously popular series of children’s novels by American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey, in which George Beard and Harold Hutchins – two overly imaginative pranksters who spend hours in a treehouse creating comic books – accidentally hypnotize their mean teacher Mr. Krupp into thinking that he’s a ridiculously enthusiastic, incredibly dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants. In this animated adventure, Captain Underpants finds himself in conflict with Professor Poopypants, a brilliant scientist who, having being constantly made fun of because of his name, decides to try to take over the world. The film is directed by David Soren, has a voice cast that includes Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, and Jordan Peele, and has a spectacular score by composer Theodore Shapiro.

Writing a good parody score is a difficult task to achieve. The word parody itself has negative connotations – are you writing something that is making fun of something, or paying respectful homage to that thing? Does the fact that it’s a parody make it inherently inferior to the thing you’re parodying? It’s a fine line to tread, but of all the composers working in mainstream cinema, the one who seems to be the best at walking that tightrope of appropriateness is Theodore Shapiro. Already in his career he has written parodies of military action scores (Tropic Thunder), inspirational sports scores (Dodgeball, Blades of Glory), and James Bond-style espionage scores (Spy), and in many cases done them so well that the parodies have more musical excellence than the scores he is parodying. The same can be said of his score for Captain Underpants, which is very much rooted in the traditional symphonic super hero world that John Williams invented in the 1970s with Superman, but is peppered with enough silliness and eccentricity to ensure that it never loses sight of its potty humor roots.

The parts of the score where Shapiro unleashes his inner super hero are just superb. By far the score’s most memorable element is the Captain Underpants March, a majestic piece full of swooping strings, powerful brass, trilling woodwinds, and a defiantly upbeat tone. People who have become more accustomed to the darker, more serious style of contemporary super hero scores will undoubtedly find Shapiro’s theme ridiculously old-fashioned, but I love it: it’s the sort of music I grew up hearing attached to my super heroes, and it released a wave of instant nostalgia within me that didn’t dissipate throughout the rest of the score.

The Captain Underpants March is a regular presence throughout the score; it appears with choral accents in “Bromance Origin Story,” and on low brass during “Snooping,” before being unleashed fully in the tremendous “A Hero is Born,” which rivals Robocop 2 for being simultaneously the stupidest and best use of a choir in an action movie. Hearing these professional singers chanting ‘Underpants, it’s Captain Underpants’ with all the seriousness they can muster, while accompanied by Shapiro’s dizzyingly brilliant orchestral lines, is something that has to be heard to be believed. It sounds utterly ridiculous, and it is, but it’s so brazen and so perfect for the tone of the film that it works like a charm. Further large-scale re-statements of the March appear later, in cues like “Bringing Krupp Home,” the warm and emotional “Anti-Humor Boy,” towards the end of “Art Class Liberation,” and in conclusive “The Prank for Good.”

A secondary theme, depicting the friendship between George and Harold, is introduced in the second cue, “Treehouse,” a fun rock piece with bleepy-bloopy video game effects, bouncy wordless vocals, and a warm demeanor. Statements of this ‘Friendship Theme’ are just as prevalent in the score as the Captain Underpants March, but it undergoes far more in terms of variations and re-orchestrations, so it’s not quite as noticeable when compared with the other theme’s forthright brassiness. Shapiro gets a great deal of mileage out of the Friendship theme, though: it appears in a desolate version for distant-sounding pianos and solemn oboes in “Annihilate the Friendship,” on accordions in “Tuna Casserole,” on more forceful horns towards the end of “Two Blue Eyes,” on unexpectedly emotional cellos in “Separation Anxiety,” and much more besides.

The final recurring theme is – and I can’t believe I’m actually typing these words – the Poopypants Theme, so named for the film’s primary antagonist, Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq. It is first introduced as a blustery 6-note brass fanfare accented with a dulcimer in “Mad Genius Inventor,” and returns later in cues like the ominous “Brain of a Child,” the dramatic “The Nobel-Prize,” and the bombastic “Poopypants Has No Gas.”

Further to all this thematic interplay, the other really impressive thing about the score is the richness of the orchestrations, and the intensity of the action music. As much as I have enjoyed a large number of his previous scores, I don’t quite remember Theodore Shapiro’s music ever sounding so deep, with so many varied instruments, and so many interesting colors and flourishes, as it does here. He works a theremin into cues like “Snooping” and “Power of the Hypno Ring,” for example, accompanies it with gruff chanting voices, and builds to a finale full of wonder and mystery that is one part Bernard Herrmann and one part Danny Elfman. The dark circus orchestrations in “Carnival Conniptions” remind me of the evocative sound James Horner brought to scores like Something Wicked This Way Comes and We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Tale, crossed with Aram Khachaturian’s iconic ‘saber dance’ from his ballet Gayaneh.

The action music, like that towards the end of “A Hero is Born,” is really quite powerful, with intelligent interplay between the different sections of the orchestra, including unexpectedly dominant brass. Cues like “Anti-Humor Boy,” “A World Without Laughter,” and “Flip-O-Rama” feature some really intricate contrapuntal writing that jumps between the Captain Underpants March and the Poopypants Theme, while the big finale in “Saving the Day” reaches heights of intensity that one would not expect from a film like this. Cues like these really hammer home the point I have made about people like Shapiro before, and how their talents are vastly under-utilized. Can you imagine what sort of music Shapiro would write if he was asked to bring this level of orchestral richness and thematic power to a serious action-adventure movie, where the comedy was dialed down? Based on the evidence here, it would have the potential to rival some of the best in the history of the genre.

However, where the score will pass or fail with many listeners is in the cues that are intentionally intended to be silly. Elmer Bernstein always said that writing funny music for comedies was dangerous because you risk telegraphing the joke, which is why he wrote the score for Airplane completely straight. Randy Newman used to tell a story about how Richard Donner once asked him to write ‘funny’ music for a scene in the movie Maverick, so he responded by adding more banjos. Knowing how, and when, to make your listener laugh in music is a difficult thing to judge, but in my opinion Shapiro has succeeded at staying just the right side of the line.

Shapiro’s approach to writing ‘funny music’ is to season his orchestra with unexpected instruments and clever little homages to other scores. “Comic Book Opening,” for example, begins with a cheesy-sounding Casio keyboard, and what sounds like the Superman fanfare on kazoos. Later, the aforementioned “A Hero is Born” contains a brief hoe down sequence for banjos that sounds for all the world like James Horner’s score for The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, as well as containing a clear reference to Richard Strauss’s famous Also Sprach Zarathustra. Meanwhile, “Hallelujah, His Name is Poopypants” is an adaptation of the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah that George Frideric Handel could have never anticipated in his darkest nightmares. Later, “Anti-Humor Boy” has an entire kazoo section that fans of Chicken Run will surely enjoy.

I anticipate that a not insignificant number of listeners will find these moments to be irredeemably stupid, almost to the point where it may ruin the score. For me, however, I’m more inclined to concentrate on the positives rather than any perceived negatives. Theodore Shapiro’s use of enormous orchestral forces, his multitude of themes, the depth and intricacy of his orchestrations, and the creative way he brings everything together is something that should be celebrated simply for existing in 2017. Best of all is the fact that there is just so much joy in this music, so much innocent exuberance, it’s impossible not to be taken in by it’s infectious good humor and obvious love of the genre it is spoofing. Opinions of the actual film notwithstanding, for me this is close to Score of the Year material.

Buy the Captain Underpants soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Comic Book Opening (1:56)
  • Treehouse (1:02)
  • Bromance Origin Story (1:57)
  • Annihilate the Friendship (2:12)
  • Tuna Casserole (0:59)
  • Snooping (1:46)
  • Power of the Hypno Ring (1:57)
  • A Hero is Born (4:14)
  • Mad Genius Inventor (0:53)
  • Bringing Krupp Home (2:19)
  • Two Blue Eyes (2:09)
  • Brain of a Child (1:54)
  • Hallelujah, His Name is Poopypants (1:36)
  • The Nobel Prize (3:01)
  • Anti-Humor Boy (1:48)
  • Art Class Liberation (1:56)
  • Carnival Conniptions (2:16)
  • Separation Anxiety (1:32)
  • Poopypants Has No Gas (1:35)
  • A World Without Laughter (2:53)
  • Flip-O-Rama! (1:24)
  • Really Silly Names (1:22)
  • Saving the Day (7:23)
  • The Prank for Good (5:38)

Running Time: 55 minutes 58 seconds

Back Lot Records (2017)

Music composed by Theodore Shapiro. Conducted by Mark Graham. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Thomas Drescher. Album produced by Theodore Shapiro.

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