Saving the world before bedtime!
Ultra-stylized, hyperactive cuties that buzz around the screen, thwarting vaguely menacing, pompous villains. Melodramatic gloom and doom with three cherubs beaming in the center. Maelstroms of neon streaks, laser beams, and pouting. The Powerpuff Girls Movie has all this and more.
When the dust settles and you grow accustomed to the shtick, is there anything left to cherish? Fortunately The Powerpuff Girls Movie provides enough humor, art, moody music, cultural references, and pseudo-dramatic tension to keep the viewer engaged. Overlong scenes disrupt the pacing, and a few characters are one-dimensional. But overall, watching The Powerpuff Girls Movie is a dazzlingly sly ride.
Facts of the Case
Mixing sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemical X, the Professor unwittingly creates three diminutive superheroes that resemble Weebles with huge eyes. A bit of residual Chemical X mutates the professor's monkey Jojo, who becomes a brainy misfit.
The professor is woefully unprepared to be a single father of triplets (a commentary on scientific ethics perhaps?). But these triplets would challenge the Father of the Year, seeing as how they can fly, move at warp speed, and shoot laser beams from their eyes. When their awesome power manifests, the indignant townspeople ostracize the girls. Soon they are found by a malignant evildoer with a chip on his shoulder. What will happen to these beatific, bouncy juggernauts? Will the citizens of Townsville realize the error of their ways before it is too late? Will the girls make it home before suppertime?
The Powerpuff Girls Movie was my first exposure to these three dynamos, unless you count the pencil cases, coloring books, sparkly hair clips, and other soldiers of the merchandising onslaught. I wasn't too sure what to expect, although I had a vague sense that I would like it because I'm a fan of quirky anime, and it seems to have good buzz going for it.
I'm pleased to report that in this case, the Powerpuff Girls lives up to its marketing presence. It has struck the magic balance between clean kid's entertainment and somewhat sophisticated mature interest. The kids can take the action at face value and be entertained, while the adults can appreciate the subtle, culturally-based humor. It has style to spare, which requires careful planning, a clean aesthetic, and judicious trimming of unnecessary detail. Effort and planning went into making The Powerpuff Girls Movie an animated bonanza: the style was the first thing to grab me. I spent the first moments enjoying the kooky composition, freaky flair, and hard-edged hijinks.
Once the initial wow factor of the animation passed, I focused on the pace, which was extreme. Somehow, things seemed to move lightning-fast while remaining comprehensible. The quick cuts and rapid pans had a lot to do with it, which is remarkable in itself. There aren't usually pans of this magnitude in two dimensionally animated features, because of the enormous size of the backgrounds needed to support them. In Hanna-Barbera toons, we often see a looping, nondescript background that gives the impression of extended horizontal movement. In The Powerpuff Girls Movie, the movement is sideways, backwards, upside down, or all simultaneously. The animators went the whole nine yards, and the craftsmanship and detail are unmistakable. Townsville was a living realm.
Oh-oh, I was getting distracted from the character development. In the span of a few minutes, the Powerpuff Girls had been created, introduced, and named. Their superpowers had manifested themselves, they had remodeled the house, and were off to their first day at school. Whoa!
Then came my first real gripe with the film. Without giving too much away, the girls play a game. The beginning of the game is amusing, then dramatic, then superheroic. I was all into it. The music was pounding, the girls racing, the stakes rising. But then the game went on. And on. Same stuff, different block. Near-collision here, crafty use of powers there. Compared to the previous rapid pacing, this game seemed to last for five years. I can see how it was intended to be an animated showpiece, a way to extend the reality of the cartoon and dwell on one concept for longer than the show would allow. Had they trimmed a few minutes, it would have worked.
Soon, the girls were on their own in the cold, dark world. The change of mood was refreshing, and recharged my batteries for this new aspect of the film. The rain, sound effects, dark colors, and creepy angles conspired to create tension and fear. This worked so well, I forgot for a few moments that the girls could just blast their way out of any danger. This basic "mood shift" was used enough to stave off monotony.
The freshness extends beyond the animation. The characters in this abstracted environment are somewhat unique. The best is Mojo Jojo, a loquacious villain with a bad case of melancholy. His diatribes are so redundant and circular that I couldn't help but laugh. The strength of the characters is due in large part to the voice acting, which is top notch.
Sharing that top notch is the score by James Venable. The music sold the action. Listening to this movie is as fun as watching it. The great voice talent, moody score, and zippy sound effects work well together.
The image is absolutely clean, like most animated fare. I was impressed at the lack of edge enhancement. No halos here! The hard edges are what sell the style, and the edges are crisp. The colors do not bloom, although the deleted scenes seem brighter and more saturated. The deleted scenes are seriously compressed, so it is possible that the palette in the film itself was the intended palette, and the deleted scenes are artificially punchy due to the color replacement used in MPEG compression.
Part of the appeal comes from witty cultural references woven throughout. At one point a monkey army threatens the city, and the animators take advantage of every monkey stereotype. We have the crashing cymbal monkey, the barrel of monkeys, and other such representations that give the army a whole new level of creativity. It is easy to come up with semi-obscure cultural references, but an entirely different animal to integrate them seamlessly into the story so as not to detract from the action at hand. [Editor's Note: Rob forgot the poo-flinging monkey. I'm rectifying that mistake.]
By the time the credits rolled, I had witnessed a purposefully detailed foray into animated wonder. The story was a tad derivative, and it bogged down at times, but the Powerpuff Girls are really cute and the movie was entertaining.
The entertainment continues in the extras. The sheer variety and entertainment in the extras kept me busy. The cast interviews are really funny, though the character commentaries seemed to be unfocused ad-libbing. (Keep an eye out for the unexpected interview!) The animated short was very predictable, and reminded me of Ren and Stimpy, but it was amusing enough. The "Sneak Peeks" are basically commercials. Thrown in the deleted scenes and commentary (discussed below), plus DVD-ROM content, and you have yourself a thorough extras package!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've already mentioned that certain scenes drag on longer than they should. This happens in at least three distinct places: the game, in space, and the monkey battle. In the case of the game, the directors seem unaware that the scene drags. The director's commentary explains that in the space scene, no cuts could be made without ruining the continuous drift of the backdrop. In the case of the final battle, the directors say nothing at all. And that is precisely the problem.
This director's commentary begins with aplomb. They give great technical information, explain the rationale behind certain decisions, mention what could have been, and generally give useful information. Somewhere around the asteroid scene, they become mildly apologetic, as though to say "we know this scene has issues, but we couldn't really address them because of technical considerations."
But around halftime of the Great Monkey War (which caused me to nod off both times I watched the movie), the commentary track is dead silent for several minutes. I can picture Craig and Mike looking at each other and shrugging, as though to say "I've got nothing. How bout you?" This silence speaks loud and clear.
These scenes aren't the only drag. I've had to sit through the opening animation 20 times now. For the sake of good interface design, let us skip opening animations!
The extras are many and varied, but they all share one flaw: compression artifacts. They wanted the movie to look good, and they wanted to keep it to one disc, so something had to go. But the compression is steep and the loss is pronounced. On smaller screens it would be easy to mistake this effect as edge enhancement. Does it detract from the enjoyment of the extras? Well, not really, but wow. Pixel city.
The extras highlight another flaw in The Powerpuff Girls Movie. Watching the deleted scenes is a frustrating indicator of what could have been. In almost every case, the removed or altered scenes show more wit, humor, drama, and interest than their film counterparts. The altered scenes are darker, depicting such horrors as girls lying to their parents, police punching the professor, and a little bit of cleavage. Come on! This was rated PG—presumably, impressionable four year olds are being chaperoned. And from what I understand, the cartoon shows all this mayhem and more. Why the politically correct cleansing? The movie would be stronger with the scenes put back in.
I can't help but feel I'm leaving something out…oh yes, WHY IS THERE NO WIDESCREEN VERSION OF THE FILM????!!!!!! This is an outrage! Surely Warner Brothers realizes that this movie is not only appreciated by children? Surely, this carefully crafted animated work deserves to be seen in full? I felt we were past the dark ages of DVD production, but clearly the message is not yet out. If the medium is going to thrive, studios must embrace the Original Aspect Ratio.
The deleterious effects of this cropping are not subtle when compared side by side. I have provided a series of screen captures below with descriptions of how the cropping may affect perception of the image.
Exhibit One: The Newspaper
Exhibit Two: The Mob
Exhibit Three: Looming Policemen
Exhibit Four: Fun with Anatomy
Exhibit Five: The Fourth Stooge
Exhibit Six: I Protest!
Exhibit Seven: Lonely Girls
I docked WB ten points in the video category for not providing a widescreen version. I don't know the fairest approach to reward the filmmakers for awesome visuals whilst punishing WB for their egregious lack of judgment.
The full screen issue aside, The Powerpuff Girls Movie provides entertainment for kids and adults. The DVD package is thorough, the sound and video are outstanding, and the Powerpuff Girls are adorable. Very young children might be frightened; let the PG rating guide you.
Warner Brothers! I hope his honor's stern lecture has had some impact on you. You are given a short leash to make reparations in the form of a widescreen release. While you are at it, allow some of the racier content to find its way into a director's cut. I sentence you to three sets of laser beams right on the tushie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director/Creator Craig McCracken and Art Director Mike Moon
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