Cartoon Network's hip and clever "Powerpuff Girls: The Movie" is bigger, brighter and boomier on the big screen than the series is on cable, but is it any better?
The short answer is no, but that's not necessarily bad. Since "The Powerpuff Girls" began as a TV series in 1998, the adventures of these three kindergarten-sized superheroes have been silly enough (yet empowering) to appeal to kids and pop-culturally smart enough for young adults. It also has a subtle moral center that appeals to parents without turning off the other two groups.
The movie - like the show with the neo-'50s look created by Craig McCracken, and using the same voice and animation talent - retells the basic story of how Professor Utonium created Blossom (the levelheaded leader), Bubbles (the cute one) and Buttercup (the hotheaded one), and, by mistake, the evil monkey Mojo Jojo.
It's pretty standard that comic and/or TV superheroes make the move to movies by telling the story of how the pre-heroes became super. (Spider-Man gets bitten, Superman falls to Earth, Batman is orphaned.) The Powerpuff Girls result from an experiment where sugar, spice and everything nice is accidentally mixed with the always mysterious and unspecified Chemical X.
That's good for bringing the uninitiated up to speed, but for those who see that during the setup to each TV episode, even the expanded version is redundant, especially since the vivid animation, with its simple color-inside-the-lines style, is rightfully carried over to the movie.
Otherwise, familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt. "The Powerpuff Girls Movie" has most of the power-pop spunk that makes the TV show work on so many levels and has generated, according to Warner Bros., almost $1 billion in merchandise sales. As the trio learn to use their superpowers for good and convenience - laser-beam eyes are perfect for cutting the crust off white bread - things get a little out of hand. During the first day of kindergarten, the girls are warmly accepted; no one even mentions that they are drawn with no hands. But an innocent game of tag by these girls, who don't yet understand the consequences of their actions, ends with massive damage to the city of Townsville and the wrath of the mayor and its citizens.
"I see three little girls who have had a very busy day," the professor tells them afterward. "Get your nighties on and get to bed ? there's something we need to talk about." What follows is a comforting lecture about how "people often get scared or angry when they don't understand something special or unique."
And then the next-day newspaper headline flashes: "Freaky Bug-Eyed Girls Broke Everything." The girls are shunned at school and, worse yet, are the first chosen to recite their ABCs. When the professor fails to pick them up after school (another childhood nightmare), they walk the streets alone until Mojo Jojo enlists them unwittingly in his evil plot by asking them to help him build a "Help the Town and Make It a Better Place" machine.
All this is set to the show's mostly techno, jungle-beat soundtrack, the girls' squeaky-high voices (think Rosanna Arquette on helium) and a regular stream of puns (both spoken and drawn) that have roots in "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and the Adam West "Batman" TV series.
It's great fun, turning sci-fi and kiddie-show conventions upside down with a hip wink, but even with more time to go deeper with a plot line, there's not quite enough here to make it special enough for moviegoing. McCracken and company did just that last year with the episode "Meet the Beat-Alls," in which all the bad guys form a new gang. They were successful until Mojo Jojo fell in love with (groan here) Mojo Ono. The episode (now available on DVD) was spiced with a script full of Beatles song titles and lyrics, plus a spirit and style that rivaled the way "Moulin Rouge" used lyrics for storytelling. It was just the sort of of Chemical X screenwriting that this movie could use.
2 1/2 stars
"The Powerpuff Girls: The Movie"
Directed by Craig McCracken; written by Charlie Bean, Lauren Faust, McCracken, Paul Rudish, Don Shank; music by James L. Venable; produced by Donna Castricone; executive-produced by McCracken, Brian A. Miller. A Cartoon Network Production; opens Wednesday, July 3. Running time: 1:24. MPAA rating: PG (nonstop frenetic animated action).
Blossom - voice of Catherine Cavadini
Bubbles - Tara Strong
Buttercup - E.G. Daily
Mojo Jojo - Roger J. Jackson
Professor Utonium - Tom Kane
Scott L. Powers is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.