It’s hard to tell who this was made for. As a fully adulted male, it would be easy for me to take a quick glance, decide that Powerpuff Girls isn’t for me and move on. This would be a mistake. Powerpuff Girls could be considered a peer of SpongeBob SquarePants or Adventure Time, that growing family of modern kids’ cartoons that also deliberately appeal to adults. Like those shows, Powerpuff is packed with genuinely hilarious innuendo and references that will go over the heads of children.
The pacing in early seasons will appeal to fans of hectic cutting, reminiscent to me of Harvey Birdman, or Tim and Eric Awesome Show. Coupled with likable characters, inventive storytelling and the occasional hyper-detailed shot (think Ren & Stimpy, which shares a good deal of animators), I found myself immediately disarmed. All my assumptions about being in the wrong demographic melted away in a moment.
The premise is simple enough – three superpowered preschoolers are created as a result of a botched experiment, and now they have to save Townsville and the world pretty much daily. The origin story takes mere seconds during each episode’s opening credits, and is so lacking an an in-built ideal, agenda, primary villain or goal, that the remaining 22 minutes could be filled with anything. To the writers’ credit, This is one of the show’s great strengths, with the events of every episode being a delightfully whacky surprise.
Even so, the show eventually jumps the shark somewhere around the Season 4 mark. By Season 6 it is firmly in the kids’ cartoon genre with most of its adult-oriented appeal reduced to token-esque dad jokes and pop culture nods. The episode plots, the editing, most of the dialogue, basically everything lacks the edge that made the first few seasons so surprisingly exciting. I found myself getting bored during episodes, but only found one downright unwatchable (S05E02 “I See A Funny Cartoon In Your Future”). While I appreciated on principle the different take this episode had on narrative, the relentless, pun-spewing narrator was simply too much for me. In this episode I became very aware that I was watching a children’s show, with nothing to entertain me as an eavesdropping grown-up.
Despite the gradual sloping off of quality, I’d say the show would remain entertaining to younguns. It never stops being bright, upbeat, silly and violent. And speaking of violence, there’s more of it than you might expect, if you’re comparing to other animated shows. I was reminded of growing up watching the standard Western cut of Dragonball Z, for example, where I never actually saw a fist connect with a face thanks to abrupt cutting. Here, the violence is certainly much more cartoonish and silly, but there are no pulled punches.
For an all-ages show, Powerpuff Girls has a lot to say on social politics – or perhaps I should say it has a lot to suggest as the ideas are never presented in a preachy or heavy-handed fashion. Particularly when it comes to gender roles and dynamics. The Powerpuff Girls are, well, girls, but there are more references to how young they are than to their sex. I can imagine watching the heroic trio would be empowering for both young boys and girls, who aren’t really able to make many decisions or create adventures for themselves. Then there’s Sarah Bellum, a subversively feminist entity. Bellum is The Mayor’s secretary, designed somewhere between Jessica Rabbit and any given adult in a Charlie Brown comic – her head always just out of frame, elevated atop her nine inch neck. She at first seems to be a stereotypical brainless sex symbol, but before long she lives up to her punny name, being the only inhabitant of Townsville with the brains to see through some villains’ laughably bad disguises and save the Powerpuff Girls. She becomes of the more filled out characters, while her colleague The Mayor grows more and more caricatured.
There is also some recognition of LGBT concepts – the most notable for me being the transvestite (possibly transgender?) devil “Him”. Sure, he may be an entirely evil character, but his cross-dressing ways are always tangential, irrelevant to his cruel and disturbing foibles. There will be people much more experienced or qualified than me who can discuss in great detail why Him presents a positive or negative display of sexuality, but for my money, Him is bound to start conversations, which is a step forward from complete silence on the nuanced subject.
When it comes to the DVD box set itself, fans have a 3-hour treasure trove of extras, including pilot episodes, interviews, and a documentary. And that’s on top of the 72 standard episodes. This kind of bells-and-whistles effort is what will keep fans coming back for collectible physical media. I’ve heard stories of the older US-only 10th anniversary box set release, which featured easily scratched double sided discs, but can confirm that this set is all single sided – 50% more child-proof! The picture quality of Season 6 is slightly degraded – possibly only noticeable when you watch it all in a short period of time as I did, having immediate memories of older seasons to compare to.
The animation is snappy, the voices are energetic without veering into annoying, and while the writing and editing slowly wane, they begin as outstanding and end as adequate. Easily more palatable than the vast majority of kid-friendly shows out there, watching these six seasons have converted me from Powerpuff ignoramus to fanboy.
8/10 for old folks. 10/10 for kids.