As someone who grew up with Cartoon Network’s PowerPuff Girls, it’s really very difficult to write a review of the show’s 2016 incarnation. All kinds of thoughts went through my head. Am I going to be too hard on the new show because I loved the old one? Am I going to go too easy on the new show because I loved the old one? Were the PowerPuff Girls even all that great to begin with (yes, yes they were), or is it just nostalgia? (no, it’s not. Shut up.)
The work of the new show runners isn’t easy either. Regardless of how they approached the project, somebody was going to hate it and accuse them of destroying their childhood heroes. As it is, it seems the new team in charge decided to take a cautious approach: at least at a first glance, there aren’t any earth-shattering changes. The voices of the three girls have been recast, but the new actors sound like they’re channelling the old ones in their performances. Character designs are different, more rounded, with thinner lines and a less distinctive aesthetic, but frankly, a non-artist viewer is unlikely to notice the differences: I watched the first episode with a fellow fan of the original PowerPuffs, and as soon as he saw the girls, he shouted: “I’m so glad they look exactly the same!” More importantly, it’s obvious that this reboot tries to treat the original series with respect, which is encouraging, given how another recent reboot of a cartoon with girl superheroes broke my heart and then set its pieces on fire by virtue of being just a poorly done cash grab *cough* Sailor Moon Crystal *cough *.
So here we are, hanging out again with the girls and other familiar faces: Mojo Jojo, Princess Morebucks, the Professor, the wacky Mayor, the girls’ sweet teacher Miss Keane. Since none of the episodes I’ve seen provide introductory stories or background for any of the above, not to mention there are many references and throwbacks to moments in the original, I’m just going to go ahead and assume that nostalgia-ridden adults like myself are a big part of the intended audience, so I can stop apologising for being a grown-up who watches cartoons. It’s good to return to the City of Townsville! I enjoyed having the Powerpuff Girls back. For the time being, the writers seem to focus more on Buttercup, while Blossom and Bubbles are a bit indistinct from each other, although I hope they will each get their spotlight in the future. I love „Who’s got the power”, the new opening theme, and there were several good jokes in the new episodes (an overly dramatic monster-for-hire with a British accent comes to mind), although there were clunkers too (most of them related to texting and current slang, sigh. I wish writers these days would realise that this kind of thing only dates their scripts quicker, rather than making them modern.) In any case, I’m hopeful: it’s not Sailor Moon Crystal.
Going beyond similarities with the original show, though, and the initial feeling of meeting with old friends again, at a closer look, differences in tone become more and more apparent. “The PowerPuff Girls” as we knew it was an extremely weird series, quite violent and almost off-putting at times, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to its own universe. The girls were legitimate superheroes, but the show was also constantly making fun of tropes from other superhero stories, children’s stories and magical girl anime. The new show appears to be taking a more ‘wholesome’ approach, and at this stage it’s too early to tell if it will pay off: the violence is toned down, sexualised characters like the Mayor’s Secretary, Miss Bellum, are removed, and storylines focus more on slice-of-life character interactions and the girls learning a lesson in each episode, catering to younger kids.
This could make parents nowadays happier, but it may turn out a bit too earnest for the original fan base, myself included, although it is consistent with the intent of the current creators. One of the show runners, Bob Boyle, had this to say in a press conference: “We definitely want to push the emotional content so you really care about these characters, so that when they’re battling a monster and they’re getting their butt kicked, you actually care about whether they survive or not.” I must admit that at times the new show brought to mind the Wheel of Morality from “Animaniacs”, which was a brilliant parody of preachy kids’ stories. Wheel of morality, turn, turn, turn, tell us the lesson that we should learn? I certainly hope there will be some lesson-free episodes of the Contemporary Powerpuffs, too.
In the end, though, I think the secret to making the most of the PowerPuff Girls reboot is to understand that TV animation has changed a lot since the 90’s, and that the old show was very much part of the snarky, edgy flavour of those times. Groundbreaking cartoons these days, like Cartoon Network’s own „Adventure Time” or „Steven Universe”, do indulge in the weird, but without the above-it-all irony. The PowerPuff Girls can never be what they used to be, even if they tried, and that’s OK. Let’s wait and see if they can be something else.