Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Powerpuff Girls Movie

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Powerpuff Girls Movie.

When I first discovered the world of TV animation as a kid through Cartoon Network and its original generation of original IPs, The Powerpuff Girls was one of the first shows I got really hooked on and stayed with for most of its 1998-2005 run (and the less said about the 2016 reboot the better). Naturally, when a theatrically-released movie, known as The Powerpuff Girls Movie, was announced for 2002, I was excited at the prospect and saw it on the big screen when it came out. I recall being a little disappointed after walking out of the theater, as it turned out to be a feature-length origin story for the Powerpuff Girls and primary antagonist Mojo Jojo. However, some time after finding a copy of the DVD release for cheap at CD Trader, I decided to try and give this movie another chance. Over 18 years later, the movie held up a little better than I remembered, however while the animation is great, I had some issues with the storytelling.

The City of Townsville is rampant with crime, however Professor Utonium (Tom Kane) has plans to create the perfect little girls to help brighten up the city. As Utonium mixes the ingredients in his lab, those being “sugar, spice and everything nice”, his lab monkey Jojo bumps into him, causing him to accidentally add another ingredient, known as Chemical X, to the concoction. Utonium’s formula explodes as a result, however his plan worked out perfectly, creating three girls whom he christens Blossom (Cathy Cavadini), Bubbles (Tara Strong) and Buttercup (E. G. Daily). Meanwhile, Jojo, who was hit by the blast from the explosion, gains super intelligence and quietly leaves to go on with his own machinations.

Since the series was airing its fourth Season at the time, the fact that the movie decides to go for an origin story was a bit of a hard sell when it came out, though that’s beside the point. On its own merits, the story has a good flow to it as the girls learn that their actions from using their powers have consequences. There are also some nice moments of quiet as they deal with said consequences, allowing the audience to properly feel for these characters. Mojo Jojo’s (Roger L. Jackson) character arc is also interesting in its execution, mainly in his interactions with the girls and the gradual development of his signature circular speech pattern.

Mojo Jojo interacts with the girls to get them to build his lair for him.
From left: Mojo Jojo (Roger L. Jackson), Blossom (Cathy Cavadini),
Buttercup (E. G. Daily), Bubbles (Tara Strong)

One thing that was actually pretty funny to me was when, during the third act of the movie, Mojo’s monkey minions (Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson, Frank Welker) use their own intellect to defect from him, displaying their own aspirations for world dominance. While this does give us Rocko Socko, whom I thought was actually kinda cool, it also brought out some sillier characters whose names and goals become humorously lamer and more desperate. Among these include Hacha Chacha, who just wants to cause chaos by leaving banana peels everywhere, and Blahblah Blahblah, who evidently names himself and comes up with his tomato-based tornado (tormato) plan on the spot.

There were, however, some issues I noticed with the storytelling this time around, perhaps more so than I did on my first viewing. For instance, the pacing is generally a little fast in places, such as the girls demonstrating their powers for the first time. Given that this is meant as an origin story, it seemed odd that they would just instantly know their possessing superpowers and collective powerset upon their creation. I think the movie could have benefitted from having a scene or two where the girls go through the actual discovery of their abilities, much like in the 2019 film Shazam! with Billy Batson learning his newfound powers and how they worked. On a related note, when the girls accidentally destroy the Pokey Oaks building during an extensive and destructive game of tag, you’d think that school would have been suspended instead of holding class during reconstruction; I understand it was to kickstart the girls learning the consequences of their actions, however this point stuck out to me.

What stuck out to me more, however, was the handling of Mojo Jojo’s backstory as presented in this movie, in that it didn’t seem fleshed out enough. Making Mojo Jojo part of Professor Utonium’s life, however briefly shown, had some potential for emotional storytelling, however it ultimately doesn’t factor as much into the story as much as it could have. Following the explosion that creates the Powerpuff Girls, which is retold to cleverly insert Mojo Jojo, Professor Utonium seems to forget entirely about Jojo’s existence, never once expressing concern over what happened to him or where he went, nor does he seem to make the connection that Mojo Jojo used to be his monkey. It doesn’t help that Mojo Jojo doesn’t really bring this up either, though the closest this comes to even happening is when he decides to kidnap Professor Utonium to stop the girls from foiling his plan. Though this is more specific, I couldn’t help but think that during said scene, Mojo and Utonium could’ve had more of an emotional moment together where the latter realizes who the former is, as it might’ve better sold what was shown in the opening sequence.

Mojo Jojo's character arc isn't fleshed out enough.

In general, the movie doesn’t seem to do enough with itself to justify a theatrical presentation. While it does tell a feature-length story, there didn’t seem to be enough happening in it and some sequences like the destructive game of tag seemed a little padded out to get it past the 70-minute mark, as though it could easily have been shaved down to more of a double-length episode or even a TV movie like the Samurai Jack premiere. By comparison, Recess: School’s Out, which came out the year before, felt like a Recess story while presenting an emotional story arc and reasonably higher stakes that would not be possible on a TV budget, all while still being a completely standalone narrative that non-fans can watch. On that last point, while the idea of an origin story isn’t a bad one for the Powerpuff Girls, a theatrical production could arguably have been used better on a stand-alone adventure story to justify the price of a movie ticket.

In contrast with the storytelling, the animation holds up extremely well. Fitting for a theatrical production, the animation quality is ramped up significantly, with some really good camerawork during action scenes. Special mention goes to the amazing and fluid liquid animations as well as the realistic animations of reflections, including during rain scenes. One particular moment that stood out to me was towards the end of the movie when Professor Utonium is presenting Antidote X, wherein he is waving his arms in an extremely fluid manner that has never been seen before or since within the show itself. The movie also makes some use of CG, however it is very minimal and is done to match the series’ signature art style.

That said, there was one minor moment where, during Professor Utonium’s introductory scene, there was an extreme upshot that’s supposed to be three-dimensional, however the execution of it makes him look flat. I also feel like I missed out on some animation, if only because the copy of the movie I have presents the whole thing in fullscreen, whereas it was widescreen in the theater. My understanding is that Region 2 copies are in widescreen as intended, though I would not be able to comment on this.

The voice acting stands up alongside the animation in terms of quality. The use of the show’s regular voice actors helps it feel like a Powerpuff Girls story, with some voice actors such as Tom Kenny, Rob Paulsen, Kevin Michael Richardson and Frank Welker showing their ability to make multiple characters sound completely distinct from each other. The voice actors having four Seasons under their belts by this point certainly helps matters, though Roger L. Jackson displays an impressive emotional range with Mojo Jojo that captures his gradual transformation into the character as portrayed in the show. Cathy Cavadini, Tara Strong and E.G. Daily (Blossom, Bubbles, Buttercup) have not portrayed these characters in any official capacity for some time outside the 2014 Dance Pantsed special (no offense to the 2016 cast), so I liked getting to hear them again after so long.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie has some good ideas, however the lack of follow-through on some of them makes it difficult to recommend even for Powerpuff Girls fans. The voice acting and animation are definitely the highlights of the movie, however they don’t do much to save the weaknesses in the script. If memory serves, the events of the movie do factor into later episodes of the show, though beyond this you can probably find better Cartoon Network movies elsewhere.

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