The Powerpuff Girls -- everyone's favorite pint size crime fighters -- are coming to the big screen. J. Paul Peszko speaks with creator Craig McCracken about bringing the TV heroes to the big time.
The Powerpuff Girls are a unique combo of tough and cute. All images © AOL Time Warner.
Dedicated fans of Cartoon Network's top animated show The Powerpuff Girls don't have to be told how the three little waifs got their unusual powers. All Powerpuff fans know that, when Professor Utonium first cooked up the girls in his Townsville laboratory, he wasn't trying to give them superpowers. The good professor only wanted to create the perfect little girl. You know, sugar and spice and everything nice. But along came the professor's mischievous monkey lab assistant, Jojo, who knocked a dose of Chemical X into the mix and puff! The Powerpuff Girls were born! All of this is compactly depicted in the opening title sequence of the new Powerpuff Girls feature-length movie. So, if you're not a diehard fan, fear not. The opening titles will bring you up to speed in about two minutes.
There's More to This Story
But, what fans and general audiences alike do not know is what made The Powerpuff Girls -- Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup -- become superheroes, the loyal protectors of Townsville. That is the point of The Powerpuff Girls, Movie. Well, actually, that's the point of the story. The point of the movie, of course, is to make money for AOL Time Warner by leap-frogging off the TV series and inducing young fans and old ones alike to bring mom and dad and whoever with them to the theater.
But back to the story. After Professor Utonium created the girls, he discovered that they had incredible powers such as laser beam eyes, superhuman strength and the ability to fly at the speed of light, but they weren't superheroes -- yet. They were just cute little girls with incredible powers. Did I say cute? I'd better add the word tough and even more appropriate, bizarre. Then something happened in their lives to change them just like it changed most of us -- Kindergarten. And, as you'll find out in the feature, the girls were never the same after that.
Creator and director Craig McCracken explains how the story evolved, "I realize there are a lot of people out there that only know Powerpuff from the shorts they've seen. So, I wanted to introduce the concept to new audiences, as well as give our fans something that they can get out of it. So, we came up with the idea to tell the story about what happened in the girls' lives to make them decide to become heroes as opposed to just another adventure. The girls were born with their powers, but they weren't superheroes then. They were just kids with powers. The story is about the events that happened to make them decide to save the day."
"There's only so much of a story you can tell in eleven to twenty-two minutes," McCracken adds. "I've always wanted to explore the possibilities of a feature-length format, where you can really sink your teeth into a good story and tell it the way you really want to tell it. We'd been cutting our teeth on the television show and learned a lot of tricks, and we were eager to branch out onto the big screen."
History Lesson Time
The Powerpuff Girls made its debut as a short on Cartoon Network in 1995 as part of the World Premiere Toons project and quickly became an audience favorite. But the actual creation of The Powerpuff Girls occurred a couple of years before when McCracken made a student film entitled, The Whoopass Girls. "It was my second year of film at Cal Arts," McCracken explains. "I knew I wanted to do the hero genre, but I didn't really have a character cast yet as a hero. And I just drew these little girls one afternoon. And I went, 'That's great! They're going to make better heroes than any guy in a cape or whatever.' When I finished my student film, Spike and Mike paid to have it colored, and then they aired it in the Festival of Animation (1994). So I had a real nice demo reel. And I took that to Hanna-Barbera and said I wanted to make this into a show."
Hanna-Barbera told McCracken that they were starting the World Premiere Toons program a series of shorts that would hopefully spawn new stars for the then fledgling Cartoon Network -- and they thought that his film would fit into the format perfectly. So, they gave him a seven-minute short to do, which they titled The Powerpuff Girls. After that, Hanna-Barbera asked McCracken to make another short. "Then, over the years, they decided that they were getting so much response from the shorts," McCracken says, "that they wanted to make it into a series."
The series launched on November 18, 1998, and remains one of the network's highest rated programs. The show made its broadcast television debut on Kids' WB! on May 25th, airing all-new episodes six days a week. It won an Emmy award for art direction in 2000 and has been nominated three times for Outstanding Animated Series.
"The core concept of the Powerpuff Girls is cute and tough. That's what it is at heart," McCracken explains about the characters. "The girls are just a balance of that where Buttercup is tougher than she is cuter, Bubbles is cuter than she is tougher, and Blossom is right in the middle. So there's a balance of what makes up each of the girls and the dynamic is great between all three of them."
Actress Tara Strong enjoys playing the sweetest of the bunch. "My character, Bubbles, is definitely the cutest of the three," says Strong. "She's into her little stuffed octopus 'Octi' and talking to squirrels, being one with nature and peacefully solving problems, but she does get into fights with her sisters in order to prove her toughness. She wants to save the day, but she also has to be cute and be nice to everyone. She's very fun."
Surly Buttercup, voiced by actress E.G. Daily, is Bubbles' polar opposite. "Buttercup is the feistiest of the girls," says Daily. "She's definitely the toughest, because she's very passionate, fights big and loves big. She has the worst temper, but she's really a good girl. She's very strong in how she feels about things -- when Buttercup gets mad, she gets really, really mad. Her outbursts push my voice to the furthest place it can go."
These two disparate personalities are kept on an even keel thanks to the leadership of the most levelheaded of the kindergarten heroes, Blossom. She is the glue that holds The Powerpuff Girls together, according to Catherine Cavadini, who voices Blossom. "She's the leader and she's the voice of reason for everybody. She definitely likes to take charge and tell everybody what to do. She's got a good side, though, because she's the one that I think is the most intelligent -- she speaks conversational Chinese, she's concerned about the environment and she really does want to save the world. She's the practical one."
Of course, in every toon, there has to be a bad guy. In The Powerpuff Girls Movie, the bad guy is a monkey -- Professor Utonium's former lab assistant, Mojo Jojo. Unlike many toon villains, Mojo is far from one dimensional, according to McCracken. "His evil plot actually has some merit to it in the movie. I like blurring the lines a bit, where being evil and being good is just kind of a choice. You can see both sides of it. It's not so black and white."
For the most part, Roger L. Jackson, who voices the wicked chimp, agrees with McCracken. "You could say that Mojo Jojo is the Powerpuffs' shadow since they were both created in the same situation and they're both intimately associated with Professor Utonium. Basically, he's jealous and mean and selfish and rotten. He's a contradiction of a character, because physically he is an ape. He is primitive, but mentally he is vastly superior to humanity, and that really, really angers him."
Most animated shows record voice-overs individually, and the actors are isolated while performing their parts. On The Powerpuff Girls, all of the actors work together while recording, and are able to play off of each other, adding an even greater dynamic to the quality of the show. "One of the things I like about The Powerpuff Girls is that it's done like an old radio show," says Jackson, "where we're all in the booth together. On a lot of shows, it's 'wild line,' which means that you go in alone and do your stuff. You don't see anybody except the director and then they edit it all together. But there's so much more to it when you're playing the scene with other actors."
The popularity of the TV series continues to soar, drawing a diverse audience that ranges from young children to adult fans who can appreciate the subtle humor and pop culture references sprinkled throughout the episodes. "It's a lot of different people," says McCracken of the Powerpuff fan base. "Big animation fans are into it. Older women are into it just because they like the empowerment of these strong girl characters. College kids are watching it. Parents are watching it with their kids as well. So, it's getting a lot of different views from a lot of different places."
McCracken has been involved in every step of The Powerpuff Girls Movie. He wrote and storyboarded it along with four other artists, Charlie Bean, Lauren Faust, Paul Rudish and Don Shank. He directed the actors, worked with the computer graphics artists and art director, Mike Moon, on the visual aspects of the film as well as scoring and editing -- everything it took to put the picture together. "I have my hands in every single aspect of this production," he notes. "This is my baby and I care about it. I've had it for ten years and it's got to be just right -- I've got this vision and I want to see it come true."
"There's a lot more work put into this movie," McCracken explains. "For the TV show, we do a blueprint -- we do a storyboard, all the designs, and the timing for the episode and then it's sent overseas (Korea), where the whole thing is animated. It's then sent back on film, and that's that. But with the movie, my crew and myself have really been able to get into almost every single drawing and fix it so it looks perfect. And then all of that animation that's done overseas is sent back to L.A., where we meticulously put every single shot together digitally in the computer. This way, we're able to manipulate every frame and get everything perfect."
As McCracken noted, he and his crew were able to employ digital filmmaking techniques to give them more control over the shots and a greater possible range of motion. But blending 2D with 3D involves an incredible amount of details. McCracken has art director Mike Moon to thank for coordinating all the artists and their departments, which resulted in a relatively seamless design scheme.
"We have a full-time vehicle designer," Moon explains, "and I work with him on all of the various vehicles that are going to populate Townsville. We have an effects designer that I work with to create a look to all of the different effects. We have several color stylists, several background painters, several layout artists, and we try and keep all those elements in sync and everyone focused and working in the same universe. We have to make sure that there's a similar design thread that's running through the whole show and that the entire movie has a design continuity that accentuates the story and creates a great piece of cinema."
McCracken feels that it wasn't a difficult transition from TV to film because The Powerpuff Girls television series already has a lot of cinematic elements in it. "When we make the TV show, we look at them as mini films. The show is really condensed, it always keeps moving and it's got an energy level to it because of the time limitation, so my first concern was, are we going to lose that pacing going into a long form? But as it turned out, the movie still moves at the same pace that the show does. It still has that distinctive feeling to it."
McCracken is happy to have been able to make the movie that he had envisioned, without having to make compromises in the process that would lessen the artistry of the film. "At heart, this isn't an animation film that's made by a studio, per se, or made by executive interference. It's made by a group of artists who really, really, really love animation and have wanted to do this their whole lives. We finally got an opportunity to do what we've done on television, but on a much bigger, grander scale, and really push ourselves creatively. We've dedicated ourselves to creating the best work that we possibly can."
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes feature articles, interviews and reviews for regional publications. He currently has two scripts under option and is working on a feature comedy, in addition to just completing his first novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.