'Powerpuff Girls' fight the good fight

July 3, 2002


As any Looney Tunes fan knows, the best cartoon shorts appeal to two audiences simultaneously, hooking children with memorable characters and the eye candy of the animated action, and amusing parents and older kids with the sharpness of the writing.

This trick can be difficult to sustain over the course of a feature-length film, though Hollywood has been trying quite a bit lately, with efforts like "Hey Arnold! The Movie" and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius."

In terms of pairing sophistication and silliness and really offering "something for everyone," both of those films are inferior to "The Powerpuff Girls Movie." Unfortunately, as good as it is, "The Powerpuff Girls Movie" isn't nearly as strong as the half-hour shorts that air regularly on cable's Cartoon Network.


With the voices of:

Blossom Cathy Cavadini
Bubbles Tara Strong
Buttercup Elizabeth Daily
Mayor/Narrator Tom Kenny
Mojo Jojo Roger L. Jackson
Professor Utonium Tom Kane

Warner Bros. presents an animated film directed by Craig McCracken. Written by McCracken, Charlie Bean, Lauren Faust, Paul Rudish and Don Shank. Running time: 84 minutes. Rated PG (for non-stop frenetic animated action).

Cultural observers have gotten a lot of mileage from ruminating about the girls' gender. Even in this post-feminist era, female superheroes remain rare, and the few that have emerged (Lara Croft) seduce male viewers more than they impress them. Not so with the Powerpuff Girls. Essentially sexless (they're in kindergarten), Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup don't make much of a deal about gender. They just get down to the business of fighting crime before bedtime, making the city of Townsville safe for all.

There are far broader life lessons to be learned from the girls than the fact that anything boys can do, girls can do, too, as my 5-year-old daughter puts it. A friend who's a political philosophy professor contends that the show is based on Plato's Republic, with each of the three girls symbolizing one of the levels of society envisioned by the Greek philosopher. (Blossom equals the philosopher-king, Buttercup is the warrior, and Bubbles stands for the materialistic merchant class.)

Another pal, the TV critic at Newsday, suggests that the plot of the movie is lifted from John Milton's Paradise Lost. (The girls' nemesis, Mojo Jojo, is the angel cast out of heaven.) Meanwhile, my own pop culture-biased reading sees an allegory for the rave scene: Frenetic techno music powers the soundtrack, and the girls become superheroines only with the addition of Chemical X (as in "Ecstasy," which might explain the psychedelic stares of their familiar bug eyes).

All of this just goes to show why crowds of stoned college kids enjoy the cartoon series as much as my daughter, who has threatened never to speak to me again if I don't give the movie four stars. (Her capsule assessment: "It's super!") But I am only holding the film up to the high standards that the girls set on TV, and that's why it's a bit of a letdown.

The series' Gen X creator, Craig McCracken, has warned hard-core fans that to reach the largest audience possible, the film had to make compromises where the series does not. Hence, to appeal to the many viewers who don't get the Cartoon Network, two-thirds of the script is devoted to explaining how the girls came to be so powerful.

Like the series, "The Powerpuff Girls Movie" starts with the Dr. Frankenstein-like Professor Utonium concocting the girls out of "sugar, spice and everything nice," then accidentally kicking the recipe up a notch with some Chemical X when his lab chimp Jojo knocks into him. That story is recapped in a short introduction to every TV episode, and a five-minute prologue was all anyone needed in the movie. Instead, the tale is drawn out with a lot of soul-searching as the girls, like Peter Parker, come to learn that "with awesome powers come awesome responsibilities."

Another problem is that the troublesome chimp who serves as the girls' Green Goblin or Lex Luthor (he becomes Mojo Jojo because he's also doused with Chemical X) isn't nearly as interesting a supervillain as series regulars like the rampaging monsters, the hillbilly Fuzzy Lumpkins, the female Seducer or Him (who is no less than Satan incarnate). All are sadly missing on the big screen.

What we get is Mojo Jojo conning the girls into helping him build a machine that turns all of the monkeys in the Townsville Zoo into super simians. He thinks the gonzo gorillas will help him take over the city (there are several cheeky references to "The Planet of the Apes," as well as a nod to the trip-hoppers Gorillaz). Instead, they turn on one another, buying the girls a little time to come back from exile in outer space (misunderstood by Townsville, they fled the planet) to--you knew it--save the day.

Compared to classic PPG half-hours like the "Seducer" episode (which is based on the Medusa myth) or the punning "Meet the Beat-Alls" (in which nearly every line of dialogue is based on a Beatles lyric), the movie version is relatively bland and unimaginative stuff. But it still has its charms.

One is the simple but effective two-dimensional animation, whose twin inspirations are Japanimation and the "Underdog" series of the 1960s (an acknowledged favorite of McCraken's). The sight of the girls zooming around the simple but colorful cityscape is a lot cooler than the computer-animated Spider-Man webbing his way through the skyscrapers, and it's a reminder that plain ol' pen and ink can still be as thrilling as more high-tech efforts such as "Monsters, Inc."

Another winning factor is the action. Some parents may be disturbed by the bountiful kicking and punching, and if so, "The Powerpuff Girls Movie" should be avoided. My daughter and I have had the "cartoon vs. reality" discussion many times, and she seems to understand that hitting a classmate is much different from zipping around the house, pretending to save the world.

Which brings us to the biggest reason to like the movie: the characters' ideals. The Powerpuff Girls are smart, resourceful and strong, as well as funny, caring and infinitely lovable. As a parent, these are traits to be encouraged. There are only a handful of role models who embody these qualities anywhere in the many TV shows or movies that are so relentlessly marketed to kids. For this reason, both my daughter and I just can't get enough of the Powerpuff Girls. And we're both sure that their next movie will be even more super.