Erica Luttrell on Adults vs Children in Netflix’s ‘The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants’

ATM: What could you reflect about the dynamic between young children with how they express their connection with friendship compared to adults?

EL: This is an interesting question. Oh goodness. Younger children seek friends with whom they connect on an activity or a like they find really fun in the moment. They tend to be more present with people. When you become an adult or young adult, it seems to become more about the long game for many. ‘This person benefits me in all of these ways. We connect on these points,’ but it’s less based on the in-the-moment play of it. You want to hope that it is. For me, it is. Often when we reach adulthood we are not as oriented towards play.

ATM: Children at the ages in this season, they do not go by appearance. They do not judge on how much a person has in their bank. They go by, “If this person can give me a yellow block or run down this hill, then it will make my day.” They have the freedom of play. They are free with their human connection. They do not judge. They have not reached the mental capacity to judge.

EL: When you get older you mirror the adults around you. You think this is what adulthood is and you should be more focused on this or that and less on the moment. You learn from your elders to be prejudiced for or against one person or another whether financially or due to an element of their background. As a kid you aren’t paying attention to these things. Instead you’re saying, “Is this fun? Does this make me happy? Is this person with me on this?”

ATM: Children around this age are oblivious to their surroundings and life in general.

EL: They have not learned. They are still observing and have not developed connections with the things around them – this being the environment and stuff that could hurt or please them. It’s funny, because I have been reading a lot about psychology. Actually, I’m taking a class that interests me. It’s fascinating to think about the way we’re conditioned and how we develop over the course of our lives, forming connections with things that are ultimately in-and-of-themselves unrelated to whatever incident or situation we come to associate them with.

ATM: The assessment of what we grow into as adults all have started and been foreshadowed from studies down on children of young ages. Human development is interesting. Through life at this age you have more wisdom. Metaphorically, I would associate it with going up the steps. While a baby you are on the first step and each step disappears as you develop into the stages of life. Each step represents how aware you become with life.

EL: Right and how life is taking shape for you. It takes shape differently for everyone.

ATM: What do adults lack in their sense of adventure that a child already has?

EL: I would say we get progressively more scared as we age, and our sense of adventure can get dimmed. It is obviously still there, and it varies from person to person. It depends on how you were raised. In general, adults have more triggers and things that make them less inclined to do any one thing. ‘I want to race down this street.’ You might do this as a kid. As an adult you might think, ‘Well when I ran down this street. I tripped over this thing. This bad situation happened.’ There are many things you just filter out. You start filtering out experiences as an adult. You are exploring as a kid. Anything could be an adventure because everything is so new. It is funny because as you get older you stop seeing the newness in things that you think you already know when you do not in fact know them in this moment.

There was a spiritual teacher I listened to few years back. He said something about looking at things afresh. As an adult when you look at a leaf, you know it to be a leaf. But as a child you do not know it is a leaf. You do not know what a leaf is. As an adult so many distinctly different things are considered to be leaves. A giant leaf on a tree is a leaf. A tiny leaf on a plant is a leaf. They are so different, but they each retain the same label. Everything is new and exciting as a kid. It is good to have experiences and to learn, but it is also good to remain open to the magic that the world has in store for us every second of every day. Kids know this innately and we teach it out of them as they get older.

ATM: Additionally, in this series, you see the children have an expansion on fun that is limitless. Regardless of what goes on in their life, they still go on. They knock it off and continue to go on.

EL: 100%. They are completely limitless. I feel like we all are and could be if we approached things differently. We can enjoy our experience as adults – value the things we’ve seen and learned – and still see the world as limitless. We can still dream in the way we did as kids.

ATM: Also, on the other side of it – the aspect of having fun, as adults get older the spark of fun gets smaller. Similar to the aperture, or the size of a camera lens. The lens gets very small.

EL: Yes. I know what you mean.

ATM: If you ask some children what they think of adults, then they will mostly respond, “They are so serious about this and that.”

EL: Oh, man this makes me so sad. It is true because I remember saying something like this as a kid, myself. This is all you hear. People feel like they need to support themselves and get a job and make money and get out in the world. Survival. We lose sight of the fact that we can have fun. The things that we do can both put food on our table and feed our spirits. It’s often a question of what we choose to prioritize in life. Is it simply to be lived? Is it important that it be enjoyed?  

ATM: Young kids want to become adults so badly. Yet they have the one thing adults lose, which is the desire to live life.

EL: Yes. It’s funny because I feel like I have now gotten to that point in my adulthood in the last five years. I had it as a kid, but I too really wanted to be an adult as a kid. I couldn’t wait to do homework. I couldn’t wait to go out, make money, go places, do serious things, buy a house. It seemed like fun. Once you get to adulthood, I think you’ve been so conditioned to be serious that you then don’t get to enjoy it. I think in many cases if we looked at our adult selves from the perspective of our childhood selves, we’d be pretty happy with what we saw and pretty baffled as to why we weren’t having more fun.

ATM: Some might argue and say kids do not have responsibility, which includes bills to pay. Even still with all this, as an adult, if you balance your life out and work hard, then you deserve the right to live life and be creative.

EL: Right. Otherwise what are you doing? Life is not about living long. That seems to be what a lot of people consider to be most important. ‘Well, I am just going to support myself and those around me for as long as I can,’ with likely little regard for how you go about doing that and how you feel on your life’s journey. Perhaps there is a better way and another way of going about feeding yourself and your family that would also bring yourself joy and happiness. You can even find joy and laughter in places where it seems not to be.

ATM: How does characters George, Harold, and your character show life to a person who does not live a free and adventurous lifestyle? Describe their personalities and how it can fit in this world.

EL: They love pranking and comic books and love having fun. George and Harold’s priority is having fun. Erica loves having fun. She is similar to how I was as a kid in that she’s pretty mature and has plans. She is the editor of her school newspaper, the lead soprano singer, and former president of the future presidents’ club. She really loves pranking George and Harold. She loves working together on their comic books. They tug her away from her ordered pursuit of successful adulthood in a sense. They are reminding her how fun it is to be a kid. Even though, I think she knows.

This is their priority – finding the most fun in any given thing, in any given thing using their imagination. This is like a lot of kids in this world. These characters are representative of what most kids go through. If you have kids in your life or children – spending time with a child reminds you of this. It reminds you of how to find the magic in your moments. This happens in every episode of Captain Underpants. It is magical because there are superheroes and crazy monsters. It is also finding the magic in everyday and seeing how the world opens for you. You don’t have to look very hard.

ATM: All the characters have something to do with pranking. The word “prank” takes on a different definition and perception based on your age group. It is a smaller word, but in our society often times the smaller words take on the biggest action and responsibility. As a young person or child, when doing pranks, it is considered funny. Adults are like, “Aww, this is funny and cute.” If adults did the pranks that took place in this series, then legal actions would be put on them. As you get older certain words become unified or more taken serious as supposed to doing it in a different age group.  

EL: This is interesting. This is fair to say. There is also the fact of it being a cartoon. There is of course then going to be cartoon craziness and cartoon zaniness. Harold the cartoon character doesn’t directly translate to Harold in the real sense in the real world. They’d be a little more dialed down. Captain Underpants might not be involved in saving the day. There’s a creative and imaginative transition happening in Captain Underpants from what you might be seeing in a real context in the real world.

ATM: How is there a different perspective of real-life issues when they are put in a cartoon or animation compared to an NBC drama series?

EL: Interesting. I love this question. Does it change the perspective of the issue? Yes, it shines a light on the many ways you can view an issue. You do not have to view a serious issue as serious. You said earlier that kids think adults are serious all the time. This perceived seriousness is the lens through which an adult is viewing every single situation in their life. I am guilty of the same thing. I try not to be, but it just happens. For instance, my dad passed away of cancer. Things like this happen in life. When a character is dealing with this on a network drama vs. in a cartoon, you tend to see a more realistic example of how people cope. Watching entertainment sometimes helps you get through the difficult things in your life. With my dad, laughter certainly helped him, myself and my family deal with the challenges that came up. I think in a cartoon like The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, you’re shown how one can laugh in times of trouble, rather than feel helpless.

Watching things like that can emotionally help you get to the other side of whatever it is your dealing with or help ease your mind enough to view things from a different angle. A metaphorical example would be confronting a knot. When you have a tough knot, if you come at the knot really stressed out and filled with anxiety with no time left to undo the knot, then you will not undo the knot. You are not going to figure out how one loop goes through the other. It’s going to take you forever. If you come at it with a little bit of fun, a little bit of ease, it’s amazing how quickly the knot falls apart. From a childish perspective and being more childish in a positive sense, in this case, it can help you approach more serious situations with a little levity and fun, which in turn can help you deal with these situations more effectively. It can keep you more level headed and allow you to smile.

ATM: In what ways, does this series coming from the world of literature to moving to television to moving its way to a streaming platform series increase the success and makes it more a part of our American culture?

EL: Oh goodness. It’s weaved more strongly into our American culture and even our world culture because it’s on Netflix. the show being on a streaming platform makes it more available to people. I read the first of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books a few years back. I was curious. My nephew was reading them, and I wondered what was going on with these books. I read it and was like, ‘This is genius!’ It brought me back to how it was to be a kid. Some of the best children’s literature does this. It reminds you of the mindset you had when you were younger. It takes the weight off your shoulders for however long it is you’re reading it. It reminds you of the simplicity of life. Making it to television and a streaming platform makes it more a solidified element of the conversation, our lives and the lives of my nieces and nephews and children across the country.

ATM: What does this series convey about our American culture?

EL: This is an interesting question. It’s a deep one. My fiancée is a teacher. She teaches in a nontraditional school environment. It’s a different approach to how one might choose to educate their children. It speaks to the idea of children’s creativity and how we might allow for more of it in our present societal construct. From what I’ve heard, Dav Pilkey had an interesting experience in school when he was growing up. The teachers wanted him to stop writing silly comics and goofing off. Insisting he focus on more serious matters. They were convinced that what he was doing was nonsense and something he wouldn’t be successful pursuing, instead of nurturing his creativity and seeing the virtue in what he was moved to do.

He did make a success of it. Look at what it has become for him. He continues doing what he loves. He believed in his passions. He continued having fun through his childhood and adulthood. Now, he is sharing this fun with other kids. It reflects how we as adults have negativity and blind spots as an institutional society. We could stand to evolve further. There is room and space for us to have new conversations about and environments for how we school our young people.  

ATM: Even though the main characters are oblivious about the surrounds of life, what can you assess about their ambition levels?

EL: I would say they are incredibly ambitious. They are writing these comics and sharing them with the whole school. They feel confident about their abilities and talents. They enjoy doing it. Their ambition runs counter to what many adults around them would consider positive, but that doesn’t seem to faze them.

ATM: In what ways with the many hats she wears, how does your character continue to show the complexity of the things a female cartoon character can do?

EL: Well, to start, from what I understand there were no female lead characters in Dav’s book series. This is as a result of the limitations of the chosen storytelling format. George and Harold were understandably our main focus. It was decided in the different world that is television to include female characters in the cartoon. And so then there was Erica – strong, smart, focused and funny…

ATM: Basically, this is correlated with Rosie the Riveter’s slogan “We Can Do It!”

EL: Erica is one of the smartest people in her grade and school. She is very self-aware. She’s helped George and Harold learn how to include female characters in their comics. She shows us how smart, capable, self-aware, and creative girls can be. She helps the boys out from time to time and pranks them from time to time too. It shows all the things a girl could be. I think Erica’s a wonderful reflection of and mirror for young girls out in the world.

ATM: Give an analytical view of Captain Underpants’ resilient capacity in this series.

EL: Captain Underpants is incredibly resilient. He is one of the most buoyant characters I can point to in animation and television. I think something about the nature of his positivity seems to skew all outcomes in his favor. He is just wildly optimistic and ready for anything. Even though the cartoon wackiness and incidents that he gets involved in might seem dangerous, he never doubts himself. I think he’s a hilarious example of how we might view existence, with a little more levity.

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