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  • nickkarner

The Powerpuff Girls Movie (2002)

The chance to have superhuman abilities is a temptation few individuals would pass up. Whether it’s the power of flight, super strength, laser eyes, supersonic speed, or any number of meta-human traits, the opportunity to become unique and/or powerful reflects the daydreams of anyone who’s ever picked up a comic book or watched a Saturday morning cartoon. In recent years, superhero movies have attempted to address the carnage and destruction the so-called "heroic" antics have caused. Before this, we lived in simpler times. Some bad guys show up. The hero fights them. A city gets destroyed. The hero shrugs his shoulders and flies off, so the city gets re-built with no help from the one who partially caused the damage. There was an unspoken acknowledgement that it wasn’t the hero’s problem that he or she devastated an entire city block. Those buildings shouldn’t’ve been there in the first place! That traffic cop shouldn't've mouthed off! So rude! Nowadays, heroes are taken to task for what amounts to reckless endangerment, although each case varies in terms of importance or simply who the villain involved was. Still, most of these heroes are of-age, meaning they’re fully aware of what’s happening and should be cognizant of the harm they’re causing. But what if the heroes in question were completely unaware of what they were doing? What if they possessed astonishing, jaw-dropping powers but had no understanding of the consequences of their actions? Hell, what if they were children? I mean, little children. If that were the case, we’d probably end up with something like The Powerpuff Girls Movie (2002).

I want my daughter to feel empowered. I get angry at myself when I have to tell her to be quiet because she shouldn’t grow up being told, especially by a man, to silence herself. In my defense, she is still a child and there really are times when she needs to pipe down. Her mother works hard and maybe we shouldn’t have a dance party at 6am. Still, getting to see the titular trio of insanely powerful and extremely hyperactive kindergarteners kick some major butt for the duration of a feature film is perfectly fine with me. It’s amazing to think that creator/director Craig McCracken’s cute little Cartoon Network show from the 90’s would become such an iconic part of animation history.

What makes The Powerpuff Girls so appealing? Perhaps it’s their innocence or the refreshing mix of optimism and cynicism with which they approach all of the events that surround them and their beloved father/creator, Professor Utonium. Or, to put it simply, it’s because despite their diminutive sizes, their powers are pretty badass.

The 1950’s-inspired isometric design of Townsville, where our story takes place, has always had an appealing aesthetic. It recalls Metropolis or any number of DC-based cities ripe for indiscriminate smashing. But not Gotham City. That place would be too creepy for the girls. The film opens with what amounts to an extended version of the show’s super brief intro. Prior to this, we get an impressive Cartoon Network logo featuring dozens of fan favorite characters. Due to the low box-office take, this would be the company’s only theatrically-released feature. The one quality that always shined through on the TV show was a sense of fun. The show never took its main characters seriously and enjoyed repeatedly mentioning how “freaky” they are. The very word ‘powerpuff’ brings to mind something light and airy, nothing particularly serious or dramatic. Still, thanks to the brilliance of the voice cast and McCracken’s team of writers, the sweetness and humanity of the three little girls has always made them appealing.

Fortunately for everyone, the team refused to kowtow to commercially-minded executives, who requested pop songs and celebrity voices to try to gain a wider audience. The film has a purity which never betrays the very reason why the show was so popular in the first place. Much of this consistency is due to the participation of the regular core voice cast. As always, the great Tom Kenny (Mr. Show) introduces us to the various denizens of Townsville via a 50’s style announcer tone and we get to see the ineffectual cops of the city hanging out at the local ‘Donut Thing.’ The show never shied away from obvious and ironic humor. We’re re-introduced to the Professor, voiced by Tom Kane, whose work as Yoda on nearly all of the Star Wars animated shows has garnered much praise, who sees his city going down the tubes. As his lab assistant chimp Jojo thrashes around the laboratory, the Professor decides to try and create “the perfect little girl” by using that old stand-by: Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice. Unfortunately, as the credits roll, Jojo causes the dreaded ‘Chemical X’ to drop into the vat and spill on him as well, causing his brain to mutate and three adorable little girls to explode into existence. The Professor’s veeerrryyy sloooooowwww head tilt as he meets the girls is quite amusing and somewhat meta.

There’s a reason Robot Chicken’s approach to parodying the girls was strikingly simple. “Sugar, spice, and everything nice...and cocaine.” They’ve got energy to spare and zoom around at lightning-fast speed. The reason the dynamic between them has always worked so well is that each of them have a specific role and character trait, which allows for both conflict and cooperation. The three women who voice them are amongst the finest artists in the business. The leader, Blossom, is voiced by Cathy Cavadini, whose credits include Fievel Goes West and an appearance as Jennifer on the short-lived Back to the Future cartoon. Bubbles, the giggly cute one, is of course Tara Strong, who is already a legend who’s voiced Twilight Sparkle, Harley Quinn, and Raven. Buttercup, the toughest, most antagonistic member of the group, gets her voice from a unique performer. For most of the best voice over artists, they mainly stay behind-the-scenes and although many of them have had onscreen acting roles, they often don’t appear in major parts. It’s quite easy, however, to point out Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily since she played Dottie in one of the best children’s films ever, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Including her long-running stint as Tommy Pickles on the hugely successful Nickelodeon show Rugrats, she’s also popped up in everything from Celebrity Blind Date and The Voice to John Hughes’s angry and problematic flop Dutch. I don’t mean to point out her less-than reputable credits, but it’s an example of how visible she’s been for so many years.

The family dynamic between the Professor and the girls has always been central to the plot of The Powerpuff Girls, and it’s no less touching here, with the film taking a few brief minutes for all of them to adjust to one another. The Professor is particularly adorable since he realizes it’s their birthday so he immediately heads out to buy them gifts but also realizes that “parents don’t leave their kids alone.” It’s established that the girls’ powers are pretty spectacular. They can fly, have super speed, laser eyes, and presumably super strength as well. A scene in which they prepare dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches features a great capper as they use their lasers to remove the dreaded crust off of their yummy sandwiches.

In a scene that many parents can relate to, the Professor has difficulty leaving the girls on their first day of school. The dialogue is highly amusing since he repeatedly tells the teacher, Ms. Keane (Jennifer Hale, Metal Gear Solid, Guinness World Record holder) that “they’re really special,” which of course, all parents say. One assumes that chaos will indeed reign, but the girls have a lovely day with the other children, who instantly adore them. Their behavior is exemplary. If it weren’t for their over-excited response to the game of ‘Tag,’ hilariously explained by a gravelly-voiced ginger child, there really wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, we get a frenetic sequence of breathtaking destruction that’s fabulously entertaining but at the time was heavily criticized for its depiction of demolition due to the then-recent events of September 11th. Still, the colored trails of each individual girl (pink, blue, green), zipping through the city are cute even though they cause untold levels of mayhem. Old favorites like the pickle-loving Mayor (again voiced by Kenny) show up, along with his permanently-hidden and very tall assistant Sara Bellum (Jennifer Martin, MIB), as the city is wrecked practically beyond repair. The destruction of a familiar-looking circular object at a business called Olive Corp. is very amusing. After the city is torn apart, things go downhill fast.

The Professor asks the girls not to use their powers in public. A newspaper headline hilariously reads: “Freaky bug-eyed weirdo girls broke everything,” which may be the most truthful headline ever printed. The mayor and the rest of the town arrest the Professor, mainly for all of the destruction but especially because his girls destroyed a pickle cart, making them “Cucumber crushers! Vinegar varlets! Dill-stroyers! Why, it just ain't kosher!” Everyone, including the students at their now dilapidated school, hate the girls and they end up getting lost and manipulated by the mutated Jojo to perform his evil deeds. Jojo, who will soon become their archenemy Mojo Jojo, is voiced by Roger L. Jackson, who remains infamous due to his work as ‘The Voice’ in the Scream franchise. Mojo Jojo’s plan ends up being surprisingly complex and unexpected.

After the girls harness a volcano’s energy and build a fortress for him, he treats them to a trip to the zoo, where he takes pictures of all of his fellow simian relatives. Little do they know that the camera is firing teleportation devices into the various primates and Mojo Jojo soon uses ‘Chemical X’ to turn them all into super-apes. In an insanely stupid move that rivals John Travolta’s tactic of giving Barry Pepper intelligence boosters in Battlefield Earth, Mojo imbues the apes with intelligence and power and expects them to still bow down to him as their king. His description of being “under the thumb of man” and to “oppose that thumb” had me laughing heartily. It’s a rambling, insane rant of epic proportion. This is a no-go and each ape has their own ideas of how things should go. The apes go on a rampage as a seriously pissed-off Mojo helplessly looks on.

Meanwhile, the girls have flown into space and settled on a floating asteroid. The dialogue between the girls is excellent, exemplifying why these three have had such an impact on their fanbase. The production design of this sequence is also clever as most of the color from the film is drained, leaving a somber, monochromatic palette. Fortunately, they return to Earth just in time to see Townsville in ruins and they decide to use their powers to defeat their common enemy. And do they ever. One of the most enjoyable take-aways on the show was that the girls are, in many ways, invincible. They’d get into trouble or dangerous situations, but their powers truly are incomparable.

Punching, kicking, and lasering monkeys has never been so much fun. Buttercup’s Planet of the Apes reference is well-placed. A running joke involving an idiot dog and Buttercup constantly having to save it never gets old. Finally, Mojo injects himself with a full dose of Chemical X and becomes a King Kong-sized baddie who actually could defeat the girls if he didn’t decide to get all dramatic and climb the highest building. The Professor whips up ‘Antidote X,’ which does what you think it does, and Mojo is turned back to a normal-sized bad guy. In a neat twist, the girls consider using the antidote on themselves to turn into “normal little girls,” but with a bit of meta-humor, the mayor insists they keep their powers because what they did “was pretty cool.” The narrator is inspired and names them The Powerpuff Girls, which he thinks is a pretty good name.

Sometimes it’s shocking that the old adage: “Why should we pay to see something we can see on TV for free?” has remained accurate to this very day. With very few exceptions, most TV-to-movie adaptations fail. Everybody liked Firefly, right? It was just the stupid studio that cancelled it too soon, right? Well, why didn’t you go see Serenity then? Miami Vice was groundbreaking and hugely influential, but Michael Mann’s gritty, digitally-shot adaptation barely made back its budget, if at all. Twin Peaks was a phenomenon, but did many people go out and see Firewalk with Me? I don’t think so.

Like The Powerpuff Girls, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, though very different, made their own theatrical effort and while it made a bit of money (I saw it in a theater with my wife), it didn’t light the box office on fire. The ATHF even makes a cameo appearance in this film. It’s unfortunate that The Powerpuff Girls Movie failed to begin a new trend with multiple CN properties getting their own big screen treatment. In many ways, the film is merely a long version of a regular episode, but thanks to the efforts of McCracken, his voice actors, the animators and technicians, and the writing team, which included My Little Pony reboot creator Lauren Faust, Charlie Bean (Lego Ninjago director), Paul Rudish (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack), Don Shank (Primal), and Amy Keating Rogers (MLP, Care Bears), it’s a worthy big screen treatment of a wildly successful group of very powerful and very silly little girls.