Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Powerpuff Girls Movie – plus shorts and commercials

Midway through the fourth season of The Powerpuff Girls, where ideas were starting to run a bit low, the theatrical movie version came out. It may seem like an obvious cash-in now, but it was hardly common for Hanna Barbera at the time, this being in 2002 their first feature film since the lamentable Once Upon a Forest almost a decade earlier in 1993, and at the time the only extension of a Cartoon Network property to the big screen. 

Prior to this, their only film that could be called a cash-in on a current weekly series (as opposed to an adaptation of a decades-old favourite) was 1986’s Go-Bots: Battle of the Rock Lords, and until the constantly-in-production Samurai Jack film comes out, it remains the only instance of a big-screen version of a Cartoon Network property. If it seems like every series that makes it big gets a cinema version (just look at Equestria Girls!), as a matter of fact that doesn’t apply to Cartoon Network, and that in large part seems to be down to this film just not making money.

There’s no denying it – The Powerpuff Girls was a flop. Even with Treasure Planet competing against it, it was the lowest-grossing animated movie of 2002. On the other hand, quite fortunately it was done on a shoestring, so whereas Treasure Planet cost $140 million and made back about $111 million, this more modest effort cost just $11 million and ended up making $16.4 million, no huge loss but clearly no blockbuster.

Part of the problem is really that while the series seems clever, that doesn’t come over in its big-screen counterpart. Deciding on an origin story, essentially the film retells the story from the episode Mojo Jojo comes to understand he was in part responsible for the girls’ creation, then extends the plot to show how at first the girls are not understood by the wider public. They have a game of tag without knowing how to restrain their powers and tear the city apart. The Professor is arrested and the girls become pariahs – which becomes worse when Jojo manipulates the girls into building his observatory for him and facilitating his plot to empower all the zoo’s monkeys to take over the city. They have a moment of deep rejection on the moon before hearing the Professor’s cry for help and learning to use their power to save people – and mete out enormous violence on those deserving it.

Where it seems the series would deliver the twist that what the girls really learn is how to be incredibly violent and beat people up with a glib irony and a knowing wink, the film does none of that. And without its cleverness, surreal touch and knowing nods to an adult audience who knows that the clichés of kids’ TV are being subverted, the mood just doesn’t come over, to the extent that the adults who watch this without being stoners who already watched the show simply won’t get what made The Powerpuff Girls such a success. Couple with that the fact that it really doesn’t have much original thought put in, being an expansion of a story already established in the show, and I see why it flopped. There’s also the fact that while there’s a polish to the cheap, simple look of the show, it’s clearly not an animation from a leading studio – hence the tenth-of-Disney’s-budget thing, and it seems that while Cartoon Network were putting about big talk about their feature film, internally it had to be made clear that this was a small-scale project, reportedly with the voice actresses having to be talked down when they were a little deluded about the budget involved and went on strike because they didn’t get a big pay hike.

Watched as an adaptation of a TV show in the mode of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut or Beavis and Butthead Do America, though, it makes sense. The show’s simple style is retained, with a nice sheen overlaid to make it prettier and the action more impressive. The Gangreen Gang in particular end up looking much more striking as a result. To lose that would be to lose much of the piece’s charm, and after all this is primarily for the established fanbase rather than new viewers. Taken in context, as a cheap extension with nicer animation, it is charming and does the job very well.
Just don’t expect too much – and, sadly, don’t expect the old smartness that made the series work in the beginning.

I also took the time to watch the DVD extras (fun seeing the actresses recording their lines, with the ‘deleted scenes’ basically more dialogue in the construction scene) as well as promotional animations for the show, and several other adverts and eyecatches made for the series. It’s a lot of fun seeing promo animations made with the characters interacting with other Cartoon Network figures, but best seeing different animation styles, including the kind of cereal advert that the series lampooned. It’s great to see an attempt to integrate the girls into live-action shots with heavy shading, and other animators rendering the girls in slightly more lanky form. A footnote, to be sure, but interesting and entertaining to watch. 

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