Film Reviews

Kicking Lasses

In her recent book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, journalist Rachel Simmons hits a very topical nail squarely on its very sore head. Coining the term "relational aggression," she employs several case studies to buttress the obvious but significant theory that modern girls are extremely angry, but trained to be unnaturally nice, with the repression leading to largely nonphysical but nonetheless devastating belligerence. With this notion in mind, we can flip open graphic artist Scott McCloud's vital Understanding Comics and comprehend the genesis of a pop-culture phenomenon. "When you enter the world of the cartoon," he writes, "you see yourself." Put these concepts together, and you've got The Powerpuff Girls Movie, a piquant entertainment and zeitgeist reflector designed to embolden little thrashettes (and thrashettes-at-heart) while giving an adult male critic license to spew sociopolitical balderdash.

First off, let's acknowledge that the Powerpuff Girls -- like Superman, Wonder Woman and Akiva Goldsman's John Nash -- are the stuff of light fantasy. To wit: Joyful Blossom (voiced by Catherine Cavadini), giddy Bubbles (Tara Strong) and crabby Buttercup (E.G. Daily) are born of a scientific experiment conducted by their bewildered, limp-wristed patriarch, Professor Utonium (Tom Kane). To avoid excessive redundancy for fans of the television series, let's just say the newly hatched creatures quickly discover that they possess potent superpowers, including flying, shooting laser beams from their disturbingly oversize eyes and leveling anything in their path. "Freaky Bug-Eyed Weirdo Girls Broke Everything," reads a Townsville Times headline the day after their cataclysmic attempt at playing tag -- it's one of the best laughs among the movie's many -- and quickly we get the gist. These iconic "little girls" are total innocents who accidentally wreak havoc upon the world, thereby providing capricious escapism for both hyper tots and their secretly seething older sisters.

Since the girls appreciate the Professor -- even painting him pink to make him one of their own -- they need a source of conflict beyond family foibles to keep the movie going. To this end, we get Mojo Jojo (Roger L. Jackson), the Prof's screeching lab-monkey-turned-evil-megalomaniac after exposure to Chemical X, the same goop that formed the girls. (In creator and director Craig McCracken's student short, "Whoopass Stew!" X was literally "whoopass," still a major component of the girls' worldview.) With his grotesquely swollen brain towering above his creepy monkey body, Mojo Jojo is the good girl's nightmare: the deceitful primate with wiles to exploit and pervert her (presumed) intrinsic benevolence. It'll be fun to read what old-school feminists make of him and his quite ill-named Help-the-Town-and-Make-It-a-Better-Place-Machine.

There's plenty of peculiar psychosexual fodder littered throughout this alleged children's movie (rated PG for nonstop frenetic action, of all things). Consider the daft midget Mayor (Tom Kenny) with his pickle fetish (obnoxiously cajoling us to cheer for the girls at the movie's end), or especially his ironically named redheaded assistant, Sara Bellum (uncredited, probably Jennifer Martin), whose flowing locks and voluptuous curves fill the frame but whose actual head and identity as a mature woman are curiously omitted. We could also go to town on the movie's bizarre anal sensibilities, noting its not-infrequent cheeky shots of monkey butts -- electroshocks slithering up into them, turd bombs plopping out of them -- but perhaps some readers are in the middle of lunch.

Structurally, The Powerpuff Girls Movie is a lot like this spring's Spider-Man, a superhero tale putting its best foot forward in the exploration of superpowers (the tag game is as amusing as Peter Parker's early webslinging mishaps) plus the occasional scene of emotional struggle. After Mojo Jojo and his monkey minions begin ravaging Townsville -- leaving no glib simian line unspoken -- there's a brilliant sequence of the girls bitching at one another while stranded on a barren asteroid. Since, also like Spider-Man, the movie spends its third act in a blaze of chaotic action, the little pause to build character works wonders.

Clearly this is the era of the kick-ass chick, from the contrived Girlfight (Michelle Rodriguez destroys her boyfriend's future and he still adores her?) to the smart allegories of Tank Girl and Lilo & Stitch to assorted punches and kicks from Julie Strain, Angelina Jolie and, heck, Miss Piggy. It would appear that Powerpuff Girls, with its retro-chic production and extremely lucrative branding (to the tune of $1 billion in tie-ins worldwide), is simply the easiest gold ring to grab on the merry-go-round of machisma. For what pop psychologists submit to be a culture of young women on the verge of snapping, it may prove just the ticket. Let's just hope it doesn't give dubious new meaning to the phrase "children's programming."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gregory Weinkauf