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30 Years of Cartoon Network: "The Powerpuff Girls"

"The Powerpuff Girls" was a popular TV show on Cartoon Network. It remains memorable even today.

"The Powerpuff Girls" was a popular TV show on Cartoon Network. It remains memorable even today.

Background and Conception

The next show on the lineup on Cartoon Network is a franchise with a history of epic proportions. It started in 1992 when CalArts graduate Craig McCracken submitted his thesis film, Whoop*ss Stew! The Whoop*ss Girls in A Sticky Situation, at an animation film festival. The design of the titular characters is heavily influenced by the "waif" paintings of Margaret Keane. It is also interesting that the teacher character Ms. Keane was named after her.

During Craig's time at Hanna-Barbera, the newly established Cartoon Network picked up the short for a series. After a name change for obvious reasons, McCracken released two new Powerpuff Girls shorts, “Meat Fuzzy Lumpkins” and “Crime 101,” on World Premiere Toons (a.k.a. What a Cartoon! Show). There were minor differences between the shorts and the final product. Although the character designs and art direction remain intact, there were two different voice actors. Before Tara Strong took over, Kath Soucie was Bubbles' voice. Ernie Anderson voiced the Narrator. However, he was replaced by Tom Kenny after he passed away in 1997 from cancer. Once The Powerpuff Girls was officially greenlit and premiered in 1998, it became the highest-rated show in the network’s history.

A Mixed Bag of Adventures and Misadventures

The show focuses on three super-powered kindergarteners who need to fight evil forces and defend Townsville before going to bed. Since this is a superhero genre, the writers knew precisely what their audiences were looking for. Each episode usually features a villain and a giant monster that the girls have to face. Some of the episodes dealt with slice-of-life situations, like going to school or siblings clashing. Though there is a lot of action in the show, there are also comedic moments that help keep the show's tone in check. The girls' fight against a giant monster would either get my attention or make me laugh at how ridiculous the antagonists are.

The first half of the series took some steps further in the creativity department, showing how dangerous, and sometimes dark, the predicaments are and how the girls would come to their rescue. In one episode, a zombie magician used magic parlor tricks to cause havoc in Townsville. Without giving anything away, it makes anyone nervous, and it almost seems like the villain is about to win. In some episodes, the humor takes center stage, such as the girls' "average" neighbor becoming a supervillain or one of the main villains taking a break from evil planning and just having a relaxing day. Once in a blue moon, there are stupid episodes whether intentional or not, such as girls getting exhausted and the citizens of Townsville must save the day without their help. In some episodes, the characters are the main focus, whether Bubbles proving she's hardcore or Buttercup trying to be a great fighter even without her lucky blanket.

My favorite episodes are usually the half-hour ones and a few parodies. An example of a half-hour adventure is "Uh Oh Dynamo," where the Professor convinces the girls to use a giant fighting robot instead of their powers. I am not sure that I am the only one, but "Meet the Beat Alls" was my introduction to the Beatles because that episode alone contains references and Easter eggs to the Beatles. The villain Him was based on Chief Blue Meanie from the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. In "Equal Fights," the girls learn about sexism in a subtle and rare manner. Despite not mentioning the phrase in the episode, it shows the girls' initial reactions to the male characters when they were fooled by the villain Femme Fatale. It also teaches how to treat others equally and with respect.

For the second half of the series, animator Chris Savino was in charge as creative director after the 2002 film and McCracken worked on a new project. When compared to what Savino did with Dexter's Laboratory, the continuity remained the same. Like Dexter, the writing sometimes lost that touch that made the first half so entertaining. Of course, there are some highlights like the return of the Rowdyruff Boys, the Professor's dream of having normal girls, and Mojo Jojo taking over as Narrator. However, half of the time, the episodes feel underwhelming because they focus too much on the comedy rather than the action.

Even some of the concepts seem absurd by the show's standards. There is an episode where the Mayor of Townsville accidentally turns into a giant after drinking Chemical X. Sure, the episode realizes how stupid it is, but the Mayor acting like a toddler makes it irritating. In another episode, the girls get sunburned while on the beach. It is so slow and boring where the episode spends its time focusing on close-ups of the girls in pain, making puns, and calling the Professor a "nerd."

Despite this, six seasons was still an impressive feat for the show, even if McCracken and Savino refused to work on a seventh. Sadly, this was the last Cartoon Network show under Hanna-Barbera after Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner. Thankfully, Cartoon Network became its own company later on. With the "power" of the first few seasons, the energy of the series was soon exaggerated through “puffed up” leadership.

Abstract Yet Action-Packed Animation

The Hanna-Barbera productions during the studio's final years produced the most abstract yet action-packed animation that the company has ever created. I mentioned earlier that the characters' design was influenced by Maraget Keane's work, with larger eyes and oval-shaped heads. With no fingers or toes, the girls almost look like living rag dolls. Craig wanted to make the girls more animated rather than realistic. As an aspiring artist, I appreciate that choice of design, since it works well with the rest of the characters and environments. In its original run, shapes were a major factor in constructing the characters. You will be amazed at how angular and round the villains and recurring characters are. Those with a creative and unique look stand out from the crowd. Occasionally, we do catch a glimpse of Hanna-Barbera characters during that time since they fit with the abstract human society.

Despite the limited character animation, the action scenes are the highlight of the show. It doesn't hold back as a superhero show. The action is fast-paced and keeps the audience engaged from start to finish. Sometimes, it can almost get graphically violent. Each girl has a unique style of fighting that boosts her creativity. Blossom has ice breath, Bubbles has sonic screams, and Buttercup throws fire. The effects animation can also demonstrate the seriousness and intensity of an action or situation quite effectively. There is no way that you will believe how an entire building can be set ablaze or destroyed by energy beams. Despite the fact that Townsville looks like any other city, it is designed in the Googie architectural style, giving it a futuristic feel that the 1950s envisioned. From time to time, different art styles and animations would change the mood or theme of an episode. One example involves rough-looking pencil sketches and another involves a computer-generated portal. Color can convey an emotion, as in "Speed Demon", the episode considered by most to be the darkest of the series, where Townsville offers a picture of an empty, abandoned wasteland with a red sky.

The art direction switched midway through the fourth season from traditional cel animation to digital ink-and-paint where the animation is more vibrant and crisp. Further, under Savino's direction the rest of the show maintains the art direction from the 2002 film, where the characters are rounder and have bigger eyes. The only difference is that it still has budgetary restrictions. The effects animations have been refined, and the designs look good. On the other hand, the action sometimes feels less intense due to the comedic tone. There is a possibility that this was due to complaints from parents after the 2002 film or an unmentionable event beforehand. Even with those setbacks, Cartoon Network's first superhero show had an impressive and creative animation style.

Small Superheroes, Middle-Class Citizens, Big Baddies

The show featured a number of characters ranging from the hero to the allies to the villains. In terms of design, personality, voice, and more, each of them stands out.

Let's begin with our heroes: Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup. These three superpowered girls were created by adding sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemical X. Interestingly, each of their personalities represented one of these ingredients. Blossom is a smart and level-headed leader who is "everything nice". Bubbles is the purest and sweet as “sugar”. Buttercup is the tomboy and "spiciest" fighter of the three. They live under Professor Untonium, their father and creator. Despite being overprotective and his experiments vary, he cares for his children and does everything he can to help them.

Townsville is home to the naive and pickle-loving Mayor, his beautiful but wise secretary Ms. Bellum, the fourth-wall-breaking Narrator, the girls' teacher and mother figure Ms. Keane, the mischievous Mitch Mitchelson, and a talking dog. Don’t ask how. Based on that list alone, these characters fit under the category of supportive allies or comic reliefs.

And then, there are the characters that are both interesting and intriguing: the villains. These characters share a common act of crime but have different motives and personalities. The villainous Mojo Jojo is a super-intelligent chimp who was once the Professor's lab assistant. Mojo's accidental mutation and jealousy of the girls prompted him to construct machines that would help him take over Townsville. Though Mojo Jojo is menacing, he is also hilarious when his strategies overlook flaws and when he speaks redundantly. Fuzzy Lumpkins is a Bigfoot-like hillbilly who is usually enraged when anyone disturbs his land. The Amoeba Boys are gangster wannabes who are inadvertently doing more good than harm. The GanGreen Gang makes up the leader Ace, yes-man Snake, the little Alturo, the enormous but childlike Big Billy, and the raspberries-throwing Grubber. Princess Morbucks is a spoiled rich girl that desperately wants to be a Powerpuff Girl for fame and attention instead of justice. Sedusa is a seductive but dangerous jewel thief. The Rowdyruff Boys are the evil counterparts to the Powerpuff Girls. Finally, we have Him. Even the mention of his real name would cause such dread. He is a mysterious, effeminate, and sinister demon who is capable of manipulating and causing supernatural events without warning.

Every now and then, there are one-time villains that leave an impression, such as Roach Coach, the Boogeyman, Harold Smith and his family, and Lenny Baxter. Others, such as Lou Gubrious and the White Lie Monster, are forgettable.

In addition to providing authenticity and personality to their characters, their performances are also enjoyable. Cathay Cavadini, Tara Strong, and E.G. Daily breathe life into their corresponding roles. Tom Kane demonstrates he could be calm like the Professor or bombastic like Him. Tom Kenny is funny as both the mayor and the narrator. Roger L. Jackson delivers an over-the-top Japanese accent to Mojo. Jennifer Hale, Jeff Bennett, Chuck McCann, Jim Cummings, and Rachel MacFarlane are also entertaining. Occasionally, we hear guest voices like Mark Hamill and Phyllis Diller and familiar voices like Kevin Michael Richardson and Jess Harnell. These characters both good and bad will always be fondly remembered in the show’s history.

Reunited 2D and 3D

It's funny that fans nowadays have been waiting for a revival or reunion special of their favorite shows for such a long time. In commemoration of The Powerpuff Girls' anniversaries, the show received, not one, but TWO reunion specials in which the original cast members reprised their roles.

In honor of the show's 10th anniversary, Cartoon Network aired a Powerpuff Girls television special after a marathon of the show's memorable episodes. The episode was titled "The Powerpuff Girls Rule!!!" In this episode, the girls must prevent their enemies from obtaining the Key to the World, which gives its holder the power to rule the world. Although the art direction and charm of the characters remain intact, the most noticeable difference is that the animation was produced with Adobe Animate (Flash) since McCracken used that program when he was working on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. There are even a couple of Foster's characters who make a cameo. In terms of the special itself, it was great to see these characters again, including giving Mojo some more depth. Even if it can seem overblown at times, it is pleasing nonetheless.

Another anniversary special aired in 2014, but it was quite different from what everyone expected. Craig McCracken wasn't involved this time, but David Smith, who directed several episodes of the original, was. Second, the art medium shifted from 2D to CGI animation, in which the characters have a paper-mache look and move like stop-motion characters. Even Ringo Starr from the Beatles provided an original song as a guest star. This special was titled "Dance Pantsed." In comparison to the first special, something seemed off. Mojo creates an evil video game (similar to Dance Dance Revolution) that traps the girls in dancing robots. Thus, it's up to the Professor, the Mayor, and Ms. Bellum to save them. As strange as it sounds, there is a humorous punchline at the end that makes this story worthwhile. Aside from a few moments, the story didn't live up to its full potential and again focused on comedy. Ringo Starr was almost non-existent since he did not have enough screen time as his character, a factor in Mojo's plan. It's not bad, but some fans felt it represented franchise fatigue.

PowerPuff Going Japanese, Rebooted and Real

Cartoon Network has produced spin-offs and follow-ups of some of its original shows, but The Powerpuff Girls was the first to have adaptations beyond its capabilities.

There was an anime adaptation of the series called Powerpuff Girls Z or Demashita! Pawapafu Gāruzu Zetto in 2006. Even though the fundamentals of the original are present, the execution of the concept is what sets it apart. Originally, the girls were normal but were given superpowers due to a calamity of Chemical Z accidentally unleashed by Professor Untonium. Chemical Z affected not only the girls but also the villains. Now it's up to the Powerpuff Girls Z to protect New Townsville from evil. It is fascinating yet strange to see an anime adaptation of an American animated series. Eventually, it was dubbed in English by Ocean Productions with well-known Canadian voice actors, such as Cathy Weseluck and Matt Hill. While some of the characters retain their original personalities, the villains take a 180-degree turn, particularly Mojo Jojo. Among the exclusive characters were Professor Untonium's son Ken and talking robot dog Peach. Regardless of your thoughts on the anime, it ran for 52 episodes, a manga, and a DS game.

Cartoon Network rebooted the series in 2016 with Nick Jennings & Bob Boyle directing. As Craig McCracken was working at Disney at the time, and none of the original voices of the titular characters returned, there was a lot of skepticism. Firstly, I want to commend the visual look, which is reminiscent of the original series. It's more colorful and the characters are rounder and simpler. It is similar to the current Cartoon Network shows at the time like Steven Universe and We Bare Bears. The theme song is not bad. Although some of the original actors returned, the replacements are average at best, and forgettable at worst. They maintain their personalities, but sometimes they develop them too much. It was interesting to see Bliss as the fourth Powerpuff Girl, but I did not care for the other new recurring characters. While it's neat to see familiar foes, the new ones like Manboy and Allegro are kind of a bore. I felt most invested in Silico due to his mysterious nature and diabolical schemes. As you can see, I have mixed feelings about the reboot. While it has some good elements, the execution makes it feel decisive among fans, especially those who grew up with it. Since everyone has already commented on it or trashed it regarding its tone, humor, and controversies, I will not speak for them. Although the show ran for three seasons, had crossovers, appeared in the LEGO Dimensions game, and won a Gracie Award, it was more popular in Europe rather than the U.S. After that phase, it's best to agree that Cartoon Network has improved.

The CW will premiere a live-action adaptation of the series called "Powerpuff." The plot will involve the girls as adults who must regain their powers in order to save Townsville. Although many may find this concept pointless, it opens up a lot of creative possibilities that fans have been wondering for years: What happens when the girls grow up? Were they always meant to be so young? In what ways will Townsville deal with crime? This has not been officially confirmed how it will work. Currently, the pilot is being reworked and one of the leading actresses has walked away due to scheduling conflicts. The best thing to do is to wait and see.

Conclusion and Legacy

Taking those adaptations out of the equation, the original remains a classic on the network. Thanks to action-packed superhero scenarios, exhilarating animation, and memorable characters. Along with its success, the show was nominated for several awards, had countless merchandise such as toys and video games, music videos, and made guest appearances on several Cartoon Network shows.

Although both the original and reboot are available to stream on HBO Max and Hulu, there is also a DVD collection that coincided with its 10th anniversary. Among the extras on this collection are the Whoop*ss shorts and original pilots, behind-the-scene featurettes, Cartoon Network promos and bumpers, as well as animated music videos and other resources. For those who missed out, it is currently a rare collector's item and very pricey.

Although the franchise has changed over the years, the Powerpuff Girls will continue to influence and entertain for many years to come.

And so, once again, another show was saved, thanks to the Powerpuff Girls!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.