After the previously-documented show pilots, The Powerpuff Girls made it to a full series at the end of 1998, a couple of years later than its partner Dexter’s Laboratory. Though clearly Craig McCracken’s baby, Tartakovsky is clearly still heavily involved, co-directing a majority of the episodes.
It’s clear from the start that the series was heavily developed before ever reaching the air. It’s not unusual for a series’ title sequence to show characters who don’t appear until many episodes in, but this one even has characters who don’t even appear until the early episodes of season 2 – the guy from The Collector and, more prominently, Princess Morebucks.
The series does that very syndicated-American-toon thing of having no establishing episode or premiere but simply launching into the setting without explanation with the assumption that the audience knows the scenario and characters already – so random episodes can easily be broadcast in any order. It even seems very likely that ‘Tough Love’ rather than ‘Octi Evil’ was written as Him’s introductory episode, but things were swapped around. Indeed, however the show was broadcast when I used to watch it on TV was likely pretty random – I’d seen most of these episodes before, but some, like ‘Insect Inside’ and series finale ‘Uh Oh Dynamo’ were new to me.
Split into 22 half-episodes and 2 full episodes, Powerpuff Girls is very easy to watch. Its exaggeratedly cute characters are of course adorable, but what makes the likeable is the heavy emphasis on their faults and failings despite their powers. Bubbles is childlike and gullible, a bit of a crybaby despite not wanting to be underestimated, allowing for her to be adorable, to learn and also for reversals like her deciding she wanted to be ‘hardcore’ being very funny. Tara Strong’s brilliant voice work (here still credited as Tara Charendoff, as she hadn’t gotten married yet) brings the role to life. Blossom is perhaps the least immediately distinct of the three, wanting to be a leader and taking charge, but getting a little boastful when she develops new powers and easily annoyed when Buttercup challenges her authority. And Buttercup is the quintessential tomboy character, making her most probably my favourite – she’s stubborn and self-conscious and that makes me feel like she’s actually the most vulnerable. And y’know, there’s something pretty heavy about an episode where she falls for a guy, he makes her feel really special and loved, and then only by happy accident does she see he’s actually just getting her out of the picture so he can brutally murder her two sisters. That’s a lot for a kindergartener to take on!
Indeed, the series gets its adult-friendly edge in two ways, really – first, by being irreverent with what’s appropriate for kids to see, taking pride in showing gross-out humour, its tiny adorable heroes being constantly abused both physically and mentally, a whole episode about how funny the mayor looks without any clothes on, and in its wanton destruction, the certain death of many thousands of Townsville residents. And second, with a real sense of bathos – some episodes feel they’re late in the run of a well-established show, like one with Mojo just trying to go about his daily routine in peace but the girls bothering him interminably, endlessly and indeed unendingly. A new superhero shows up but turns out to be engineering crimes, but the way the girls beat him is by doing the very same thing. And one episode is about the Gangreen Gang making prank phone calls, which ends up with the villains sorting the problem out while the heroes are unawares.
The strength here is really in the characters, major or minor. The girls are immediately engaging and understandable, Professor Utonium’s protective nature but vulnerability to women is easily understood and though some baddies are duds – ‘Roach Coach’, with power over cockroaches, for example, or some kid who eats glue before a radioactive insect turns him into a huge hulking glue monster that’s actually one of the girls’ toughest challenges – many, many more of them are brilliant and iconic. The Gangreen Gang and the Amoeba Boys from the pilots/shorts are great, but it’s really Mojo Jojo with his ridiculous pleonastic way of speaking and Him with his evil mind games that stand out as classics. The Rowdyruff Boys are an obvious but strong idea, and Fuzzy Lumpkins becomes much stronger conceptually with his pseudo-Southern attitude to people on his property. Plus you can’t help but love the Mayor.
The voice work is also top-notch, which is something that made 90s cartoons appeal so much to Gen-Xers and stoners. The three girls have an instant dynamic, two of them having starred in Rugrats before this, and of course Tom Kenny puts his stamp on every role he plays, from Spongebob to The Ice King. Where Mojo’s daft speech patterns came from I do not know, but they’re absolutely inspired, and Him’s voice sends chills down the spine.
Being ironic and going for a lot of parody – from Star Wars to Godzilla – protects the show from a lot of criticism. Of course it’s lame – it’s a joke on silly superhero tropes! But there are some real shortcomings. Sometimes the episode length means a strong idea has to just be randomly dropped, like when Him’s Octi just blows up because it’s made to drop the captive girls, or when a cure for a terrible disease can simply be taken out of the Amoeba Boys. It is also unashamedly politically incorrect to the point of being offensive – racial caricatures abound, there’s something anti-trans in how Him is portrayed, I don’t know why Mojo has that accent and with the mecha parody episode and all those unflattering representations of the Japanese, it’s amazing they loved it so much. And while sure, kids won’t notice or care, this is emphatically not just for kids and I don’t see what gets added by it.
But it doesn’t stop the real brilliance of the writing, how it turns typical Hanna Barbera-style cartoon making into something hip and intelligent, or how well-performed and well-executed the whole thing is. Impressive work.