Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Powerpuff Girls: "Man Up" Lacks the Balance it Preaches

There is no winning when you're reviewing a reboot of a series that meant a lot to you as a kid. If it's bad, then, well, it's bad. If it's good, you're going to have to defend it from nitpicky fans for the rest of your life. Alas, the time has come to make my stand. The Powerpuff Girls held its worldwide premiere to much fanfare last night, and today those of us who couldn't make it to SXSW are getting the episode "Man Up" on iTunes for free, which is apparently the second episode.

(I could rant on a while about the problems with not premiering the pilot episode first and how easily it can give potential viewers the wrong idea about the tone of the entire series - Wander Over Yonder anyone? - but let's move on.)

But honestly? I would have settled for good or bad better than I'm handling mediocre, and it's a really weird type of mediocre. The kind of mediocre where I didn't just sit amused through the entire episode, rather I spent about half the episode laughing and the other half rolling my eyes.

A clip of "Man Up" was the first clip we got besides the theme song, and it immediately made me worry about the tone the show was going tone have about feminism.

PPG handled feminism in a way that current cartoons still have trouble with - rather than doing a ton of “GIRL POWER!!!” one-liners, making men seem like bumbling idiots, or treating traditionally feminine traits like pastel colors, fashion, and romantic interests as weakness, girls being just as strong as capable as boys is something the show’s universe just… took for granted in a sense. And when the show DID flat out preach about feminism, it played its cards carefully.
The rest of the episode did nothing to lessen my concerns. The villain we saw Buttercup beat the snot out of after he called her "princess" is Man Boy, a boy with all the powers of a man. Supposedly. In reality, he just acts hypermasculine and is short. Other than his height that we're apparently supposed to perceive as shorter than other adult male characters like The Mayor, and his face that we're apparently supposed to perceive as rounder than all the other round faces in the show, he doesn't actually have any childish traits. At first, his over-the-top masculine displays are funny, but by the end of the episode it wears rather thin and feels more like an attempt to shame any sort of masculinity than just have a discourse about people who use masculinity to act superior.

Eventually, Blossom sighs and utters "Ugh, men" and I was officially ready to never see StrawMan (pun intended) ever again. Making stereotypical jabs at an entire gender while attempting the preach the importance of both masculinity and femininity doesn't work.

Meanwhile, Buttercup yells "don't call me princess!" four times before rage overtakes her and she has a complete mental breakdown, which leads to her accidentally hurting Bubbles. The feels were intense, but the joke leading up to them wasn't nearly as funny as the writers seemed to think it would be. If the later cries had been shown as part of her breakdown instead of attempting to be funny, it could have shown how series Buttercup's problem is. Instead, it's just a catchphrase that stops being funny after the second time it's said, so please stop using that line to promote Buttercup, Cartoon Network?

Aside from that, Buttercup's story of looking for inner peace actually has quite a few laugh out loud moments, especially for me living in Oregon surrounded by people who would totally hold a "Zen-assance Fair" or however it's spelled at the drop of a hat. It would have been great if more time were spent on this aspect, instead of trying to shove so much character development into what was already an overloaded script.

I could throw another page at you about the art, but the animation errors fans have already found in the preview content speaks for itself, and the full episode doesn't improve on the hit-or-miss quality of each shot.

Overall, "Man Up" feels like a rough draft of what could have been a really great episode, both in writing and art quality, which is especially frustrating when you think about exactly how long the show has been in development. The episode has several great moments, but also several annoying moments that could have been cut. As happy as I am that the new PPG is giving so much new talent a chance to shine, the PPG crew might need someone a little more seasoned to step in as an advisor.

(Not going directly to storyboards might also be a good idea. Yes, the method works for Adventure Time, but PPG is clearly trying to have a more rigid, fast-paced structured script without actually including a script at all. Cartoon Network's tendency to take screenwriters for granted and often remove them from the process entirely is starting to feel less like innovation and streamlining and more like stubbornness and a lack of appreciation for good storytelling practice.)

On the bright side, it gives me hope that PPG 2016 is just having some growing pains and will get better with a little time. So I'm just gonna put that glimmer of hope in my pocket, get ready to see Zootopia this weekend, and try not to let anybody hear my inner nostalgia-nerd grumble because Tom Kenny didn't narrate anything.

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