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Beyond Good and Evil 

To the utterly adorable ass-kicking superheroics of the Powerpuff Girls!

Wednesday, Nov 22 2000
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Page 5 of 8

Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup are identical — they’re triplets, after all — except for the color of their eyes and dresses, and the color and character-appropriate style of their hair: redheaded Blossom’s bow-crowned ponytail, which functions visually as a superheroic cape; blond Bubbles’ Cindy Brady pigtails; brunette Buttercup’s severe, helmetlike bobbed flip. Model sheets instruct animators in the girls’ streamlined physiology: "Think of head as a solid ball. Features are ‘painted’ on, they should wrap around contour of head." "Keep body and legs short and cute." "Hand ends in slight point (like a butter knife)." "The girls’ arms are muscle. They’re solid, not flat." It’s the very lack of detail that makes them look substantial and strong.

We assume the nose. We assume the fingers. In fact, we don’t want the nose or the fingers, because they would mar the girls’ particular peculiar beauty. "People have asked if we’re ever going to do a live-action Powerpuff," says McCracken, "but I wouldn’t want to, because then you’re defining them — they’ll have fingers and they’ll have noses and they’ll be real little girls and it just won’t be the same. But as cartoons they’re kind of this symbolic catchall." And then there is the question of the eyes, which no human head could bear, those big eyes that remind some viewers of the big eyes of Japanese anime, but which were inspired as much by the kitschy art of Margaret Keane. (There are Powerpuff Girl dolls on display in the Keane retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum.)

"We both like really flat, iconic, simplistic design," says Genndy Tartakovsky. "We try to create our own universe, not based on life. The trend now in animated feature films is to get as close as possible to doing something realistic, but it’s completely not interesting to me." By Disney standards, The Powerpuff Girls isn’t animated at all, but it is as animated as it needs to be. (When Craig McCracken first went off to CalArts, he was worried it would all be learning "to draw a deer running through the forest.") Speed and power are suggested through dynamic design, extreme poses, whiplash editing, the skittery electronica of the soundtrack. One particularly clever episode, all seen from the Mayor’s point of view, left the screen black for a couple of minutes (he was blindfolded). "Limited animation" — as opposed to the "full animation" of, say, Pinocchio — began as an economy, a cheaper, quicker way to produce cartoons, but at its best, as in the short films of UPA or Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle et al., it provides its own elegant shorthand solutions, trading fluidity and complexity of motion for brilliance of color and form and sharp verbal wit.

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The Powerpuff Girls incorporates within its deceptively simple aesthetic a kind of résumé of the form. "A lot of that is just from doing your homework and finding out where the best stuff was done," says McCracken. "It’s like if you want to study great design you look at UPA and early Hanna-Barbera, and if you want to study great timing you look at Tex Avery and Bob Clampett shorts. For action sequences look at anime — they really do it better than anybody’s ever done it before. So it’s just a matter of knowing where the best people are and learning from them, and all those influences are sprinkled throughout all our shows. There seems to be this focus on Powerpuff as just this tribute to anime, but they’re missing the UPA tributes and the Jay Ward tributes." There are references as well, passing or extended, to Star Wars, Diff’rent Strokes, The Life of Brian, Monty Python, Spinal Tap, The Karate Kid, The A-Team, Schoolhouse Rock, The Princess Bride, South Park, The Godfather, Star Trek, Pokémon, Batman (the Mayor’s office is modeled on Commissioner Gordon’s, from the ’60s live-action TV series), Yellow Submarine, any movie where a monster destroys Tokyo, the art of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and the films of Jacques Tati, who appears briefly as M. Hulot in a beach scene, while the look of the Professor’s house recalls the boxy modern manse of Mon Oncle.

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