Can the Powerpuff Girls Save the Day Once Again?

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Airing between 1998 and 2005, The Powerpuff Girls was a Cartoon Network show created by Craig McKraken, following the lives of the titular characters — adorable little girls created from sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemical X, which gave them fantastic super powers.

The series quickly gained popularity thanks to its sharp humor, playful action, and adorable characters. Now it’s 2016, and the The Powerpuff Girls are back with a reboot-slash-sequel series. With new directors Nick Jennings and Bob Boyle, there were a lot of eyes on the show, eager and anxious to see if it would be able to live up to the original. With ten episodes out, has it honored its predecessor while managing to stand on its own two feet? Let’s take a look.

Introduction:

Powerpuff Girls RebootNewbie (K-K Bracken): I watched some of the original Powerpuff Girls series as a kid, and I remember liking it fine, but not so much that any details have stuck with me as I grew up. Almost exactly a year ago I started watching Steven Universe, and that was sort of my gateway children’s animated show, as I have since then gotten into Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Over the Garden Wall, Samurai Jack, and others. I was excited that Cartoon Network was rebooting the series and looking forward to watching it with a critical eye, since so many kid’s shows these days are all ages, overall incredible media.

Veteran (Laura B): Looking back, The Powerpuff Girls was honestly pretty formative for me. I remember a time as ppgolda kid when I refused to watch it, thanks to some serious internalized misogyny — somehow it simultaneously had too much action for a girl, but was also too ‘girly’ for boys. Realizing how ridiculous that idea was and embracing the show was a huge step for me. I have fond memories of watching the show after school, singing the end credits song with my sister, who for years even had the nickname ‘Bubbles’. The Powerpuff Girls is probably a big reason for my current love of the superhero genre and cartoons as a whole, and they hold a special place in my heart.

Animation style

Newbie: The animation style was in no way distracting for my potential positive experience, but there was nothing about it that gripped me, either. I liked the multicolored flairs of each girls’ magic as they zoomed through Townsville, and the lair of Allegro was rainbow-tacular. It took a few episodes for me to get used to the preposterously-sized eyes of Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles, but after I did, I no longer found their designs distracting. I found the characters that populate the background of Powerpuff Girls to be utterly forgettable.

Veteran: Generally, I really enjoy it. The original series had a very 90’s cartoon aesthetic, simultaneously sketchy and art-deco, and it was great. The new iteration has taken some of the basic same designs of the original, but updated them into more modern cartoon sensibilities — bright, bold colors and softer lines. Sometimes the clash can be a little jarring, but generally I think it’s very attractive to look at, and that’ll probably become more cohesive as the show moves forward. I do really like the touches on the colored flares that stretch behind the girls — as opposed to a solid streak, they now have visual effects that capture their personalities. 

Humor

Newbie: I have to plea the “children’s show” defense here, but I rarely found the first eleven episodes of the Powerpuff Girls reboot funny. There were two villains that made me chuckle, Allegro from “Painbow” and Man-Boy from “Man Up,” because I thought they had some hilarious quips in line with their bad guy schtick; “Wuh oh, introspection bums Allegro out!” and “But not too personal like in an emotional way!” I also thought the mixed media cutaway visual jokes could be on point, giving the show a proper “superhero satire” vibe which I felt it lacked at most other times. Also, a few of the signs I caught in Townsville were great: “Zen-assaince Faire,” and “Springs r’ Us.” I also rather liked the more modern flair on some of their jokes, particularly the “monster rating app” gag from “Princess Buttercup.”

professor sprinklerBut a lot of the humor was just too simple for me to enjoy. I don’t want to say juvenile, because I like fart jokes as much as your average six-year-old, but it felt like I was supposed to be laughing at insults like “Buttzilla” and “wimpy butt,” or the Professor running around his sprinkler in his speedo, but it just felt forced, not funny.


Veteran: Bit of a mixed bag for me. The new show focuses a fair amount on cutaway gags, which I generally found unfunny and distracted from the flow. Some of the pop cultural references they make, like the random rap battle in “Escape From Monster Island”, felt rather forced. Some of the strongest comedy from the old show came from two sources; witty dialogue, and the inherent ridiculousness of placing cute little girls into crime-fighting situation, and we still see glimmers of it here. There have been some great one-liners and fun interactions between characters. Buttercup, with her brusque, honest attitude can be hilarious, and so can Professor Utonium, playing the role of eccentric-genius-turned-single-dad. One thing I would like to see (or rather, hear) more of is the Narrator. I understand the creators not wanting to feel forced to include him in every episode, but there was always a lot of great jokes to be found in playing with his introductions, and allowing him to break the fourth wall is a veritable goldmine. 

Plots

Newbie: Eleven episodes in and I’m already sick of every episode being two Powerpuff Girls vs the third one. I know that conflict drives stories, but I was hoping to have a more supportive cast, especially one populated by mostly female characters. It’s dandy that they end most episodes hugging and having worked out their problems, but seriously, how many times must I see flames in Bubbles eyes? How many times must Buttercup feel like she doesn’t fit in with her more traditionally feminine sisters? How many times will Blossom feel inadequate because of her perfectionism? I wouldn’t even mind these repetitive plot devices as much if it weren’t constantly powerpuff vs powerpuff. I wish this show had dared to take a less traditional route, and charged their stories through conflict which didn’t require the girls to be at odds with each other over and over again.

Based on this eleven-episode sampling, it feels almost like the writers are writing storylines for adults, but substituting kid-stuff to make it appropriate. “The Stayover” is literally a “The Hangover” satire, but with candy!

powerpuff vs powerpuffI also felt my newb-status come into frustrating play here. I know from the internet and my childhood which villains are new and which are from the original series, but I have no context for them! I have no context for the Professor, who just flits in and out of the girls’ lives, parenting when is convenient for him. I have no context for the redhaired secretary who retired, and I’m pretty sure she was a big character in the original. I HAVE NO CONTEXT FOR THE DAMN PICKLES. So this reboot is a continuation of the last series? I just wish those things were clear from context, rather than requiring research to figure out.

Veteran: In the original series, episode were originally very “monster of the week” focused. Plots were standardized; monster or villain attacks, girls beat him up, the day is saved, hooray! As the show gained popularity and the creators were given more freedom by the network, they started moving away and doing more unconventional plots, often focusing more on the girls’ everyday lives. In that sense, the reboot (or continuation/sequel) feels a lot more like late series PPG, with the superheroics taking a back-seat to slice-of-life stories.

Which would be fine and dandy, if they were being creative with it. But instead, so many of these episodes’ stories just feel stale. I’ve seen the plots in a dozen other cartoons, and there’s no clever twists on them to make them interesting. Bubbles has a ticket to a cool rock show — but oh no, she can only choose one sister to take with her! Who will she choose? Buttercup has found new, cooler friends, and has stopped hanging out with her sisters — will she ever come back? Of course she will; you know that from the moment the conflict is set up. Honestly, the episode “Power-Up Puff” even felt like a repeat of the original series episode “Nuthin’ Special”, where Buttercup felt insecure because she didn’t have a special power like Bubble’s polylingualism or Blossom’s ice breath. You could argue that kids are going to be less likely to notice how cliched these stories are, having simply been exposed to less media, but even as a kid I picked up on this kind of repetition. Besides, if you’re going to bring the show back, why would you do it just to make stories that have been told dozens of times with other characters already?

ManBoy

New villain Man-Boy, a young child obsessed with being ‘manly’.

Something I will say I appreciate is the nice balance of new villains and old ones. I’m sure it would have been tempting to just play around with the old iconic favorites, like Mojo Jojo and Him, but the writers have been working hard to keep the show fresh with one-off antagonists and new recurring villains like Pack Rat.

As a bit of a side-note, it also seems like there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle how episodes are ordered, but I’m not sure if that’s down to the production crew or Cartoon Network. About six episodes in, the girls start utilizing energy construct abilities, seemingly out of nowhere… because we only get the origin episode for them in episode 10. I’ll be quite pleased if the show does try to add in some continuity, but if that’s the case, episode order is going to matter, unless you want your audience confused.

Morals

Newbie: Honestly, I have no idea what to say here. I tried to parse out the morals of the first episodes as I watched them, but they were already so confusing, I gave up. More often than not, the message felt like some variation of: “don’t have too strong of a personality,” which can be downright dangerous for a show aimed at young people. 

ponyunicornppg

Donny, the pony who believes he’s a unicorn, is consistently portrayed as overdramatic and oversensitive, which as a metaphor for transgender people presents an uncomfortable message.

Look, I don’t need a show to be a beacon of morality for me to enjoy it. But this show is clearly trying to deliver messages, and failing, in my opinion.

And then there was the unicorn episode, “Horn, Sweet Horn.” It was confirmed by the creators that this episode was intended to be a vessel for talking about being trans. Criticism has already been leveled for Powerpuff Girls’ clumsy handling of practically everything involved. While there wasn’t anything else in these first two weeks’ worth of episodes on this level of tone-deaf attempts at social commentary, I am afraid for more to come. Truly, it feels like Cartoon Network saw the success of these themes in shows like “Steven Universe” and “Adventure Time” and decided to capitalize further on that, without any of the careful attention to getting the narrative right.

Veteran: They’re… pretty standard, to be honestly.

K-K pretty well vocalised some of the issues with the muddled, confusing morals of the early episodes, and the sheer failure that was “Horn, Sweet Horn”. Otherwise, the Aesops are definitely the kind of lessons I expect to see in these kids’ shows. “Extreme passivism can be just as bad as extreme aggression”, “There’s a time to have fun, and a time to work hard”, and “Be responsible” are all some of the morals doled out. They’re decent lessons, and stuff that kids’ should be learning, but they’re so basic that they don’t leave much for any older viewers.

Fave/Least Fave episodes

Newbie: My favorite episode was “Painbow,” because of the villain Allegro, and the design of his rainbow-lair. My least favorite episode was “Little Lost Octi,” because it was yet again manufactured conflict between the Powerpuff Girls, I disliked the villain, and there was a lot of stuff going on I felt like I needed context for that I didn’t have (New powers? Bubbles vs Buttercup romantic rivalry?)

painbow
Veteran: “Painbow” was hands-down my favorite as well. The moral was excellently executed, the humor was great, the visuals were simply stunning. “Horn, Sweet Horn” was probably my least favorite; besides the cringeworthy execution of the metaphor, most of the humor fell flat for me or was a little too silly for my tastes.

Will You Keep Watching?

Newbie: Not unless I see signs that they have cleaned up a lot of the things I took issue with. It just feels very two-dimensional. I don’t care about the girls, I don’t care about their exploits. There aren’t enough hints of larger lore that have piqued my interest and the side characters are non-existent/non-intriguing. It’s not funny enough. I’m really excited about the next episode. It has yet to feel like it could be hiding emotional depth. The designs are fine and sometimes interesting but again, not enough that it makes me want to continue. Shows go through growing pains and perhaps the Powerpuff Girls reboot is experiencing that, but while there are individual parts I truly enjoyed, the incoherent, sometimes-offensive whole is not intriguing enough for me to want to keep going for now.

Veteran: Maybe I’ll occasionally watch an episode here and there, especially if I catch wind of any particularly clever or funny ones. I have a lot of love for the girls, and I’m glad that they’re in action again. That said, this reboot hasn’t really caught me. I’m just not engaged enough by its humor or its stories. There is some good building blocks here, but here’s hoping it can find its Chemical X and become something truly super. 

Author: KK Bracken & Laura B



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