Friday, 14 June 2013

The Powerpuff Girls / Whoopass Stew! – pilots, forerunners, and show history

Lest we forget, my blog is intended to be about animation from around the world, even if I horribly neglect the Golden Age, arthouse European and experimental shorts that I sometimes watch. But I do sometimes get through an entire American cartoon series and write up my thoughts – albeit mostly something nostalgic from the 80s. But I fully intend to watch the totality of The Powerpuff Girls, one of the best of the cartoons around in the late 90s and early 2000s, somewhat after my main period of watching cartoons for fun but before I got a bit more serious about the art form.

In many ways, The Powerpuff Girls, along with its sister production Dexter’s Laboratory, defined how animation would look for the decade that followed. The bold, simple lines, extremely flat presentation, tongue-in-cheek, anarchic and hyperactive direction and post-Ren & Stimpy Show self-awareness not only proved hugely influential and spawned a slew of inferior imitations but created a style that was easily adapted into Flash for easy animation – for better or for worse.

But the series began in 1992 with a very silly short Craig McCracken made at CalArts – which of course was founded (through a merger) by Disney. While Genndy Tartakovsky was making the short that would later become Dexter’s Lab, Craig McCracken put together a funny little short called Whoopass Stew! – The Whoopass Girls! in: A Sticky Situation!, starring as you may have guessed the Whoopass Girls, who of course would later be refined to the more universally-acceptable Powerpuffs. He worked on three more mini-episodes, but never finished them, and the little story with its intentionally retro set-up is imaginative but very thin. The first of the Powerpuff Girls’ nemeses to appear, perhaps surprisingly, were not Mojo Jojo or Him but the Gangreen Gang – there essentially to get wiped out in an introductory scene – and the Amoeba Boys, who here had not yet got their endearing quirk of being useless at crime but prove quite formidable opponents for the girls, almost absorbing them before they seem to spontaneously develop powers of flight (it being ambiguous before that whether they were flying, leaping or simply running without a solid background) to take the poor criminals to roast in the Sun itself. Impressive powers these Whoopass Girls have.

The young CalArts animator must have created a buzz of some sort – McCracken’s slightly unsettling No Neck Joe played at some animation festivals, and so did this short, and apparently the right people took notice, because he was in 1993 hired as the art director for Hanna-Barbera’s Two Stupid Dogs shortly before they were absorbed into Warner Brothers – after just enough time to define what Cartoon Network was going to be. After a couple of years of Tartovsky paying his dues on Batman and The Critic, Genndy Tartakovsky was recommended by McCracken and the two soon began to assert their presence in Hanna-Barbera just as it seemed to be turning a corner with this fresh new blood. Being in the right place at the right time, the two former classmates were to provide the first episodes for Fred Seibert’s new, expensive project to produce a great number of pilots for potential shows, which he called What a Cartoon! (and also World Premiere Toons, but that was just for promotion). From the same trailer, the two collaborated to develop their student films, the very first of this influential series eventually being the 1995 pilot for The Powerpuff Girls, and the second being Dexter’s Laboratory. Both also had a second pilot in early 1996 – and though it seems apparent that it was McCracken’s creative properties that were given precedent, it was Tartakovsky’s that were the more immediate hit, winning a vote and becoming a series in its own right later that year. The Powerpuff Girls, meanwhile, would not get its own slot until 1998, which was after fellow What a Cartoon! pilots Johnny Bravo and – sad to say – Cow and Chicken.

It’s not entirely a surprise that the two pilots didn’t hit the chord the series eventually would manage with a generation in which cartoons are adored by both little kids and stoners in their teens and 20s. The pilots just aren’t a very good representation of an idea, and it’s down to McCracken’s writing rather than Tartakovsky’s animation direction. In the first episode, Fuzzy Lumpkins – an ugly and jarring design if there ever was one – gets angry that the girls don’t name his meat jam as winner of a competition so goes on a rampage with a gun that turns everything to meat, including the mayor – though he can still talk. In the second, rather better episode, the Amoeba Boys now have their useless hook and have to be taught how to rob a bank by the girls – but it’s an angle that thrives on knowing and loving those good-hearted girls so doesn’t work when they’re brand new to an audience. Quite apart from the unpolished visuals compared with the developed series, the trouble here is that the storytelling just isn’t smooth enough to work.

But Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network had turned a corner with these shorts, and soon Dexter’s Laboratory would be such a hit it was impossible to ignore. So Powerpuff Girls thankfully got another chance. Series 1 eventually followed. 

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