Kindergartners mix cuteness, crime-fighting

Popularity: The cartoon characters on 'The Powerpuff Girls' may be short and sweet, but they can defeat villains just like the rest of the guys.

September 03, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Sugar. Spice. Everything nice. These are the ingredients used to create the hottest, hippest cartoon show for girls since, since -- well, since maybe ever.

You can keep your Transformers, your X-Men and your Pokemon. At the Fullerton home of Chelsea and Tess Larichiuta, ages 8 and 9, the only must-watch TV show features three kindergartners with peculiarly large eyes who thwart evil-doers during recess.

Namely, "The Powerpuff Girls."

The show's main characters, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles, were created in a lab by the kind-hearted Professor Utonium in a quest to create the perfect little girls. They are cute but tough: saving the fictional city of Townsville one minute and in the next, insisting the night light be left on at bedtime.

"The Powerpuff Girls are very brave," says Tess, a fourth-grader at Fullerton Elementary School. "I like the show a lot. I think it entertains."

For Chelsea's birthday last month, the girls hosted a Powerpuff-themed party. Plates 2 / 3 cups, napkins, even the cake was decorated with the powerful threesome.

It isn't as if the sisters watch a lot of television. They don't even like traditional cartoons like the Flintstones or the Jetsons. But the Powerpuff Girls are something else.

"They want something hip -- maybe it's generational," says Mary Larichiuta, their mother. "I escaped Pokemon. I guess I'm not going to escape this."

Few parents of young girls are. "The Powerpuff Girls" has turned into a breakout hit for Time Warner's Cartoon Network, the cable channel that airs the show weeknights at 8 (and repeats at 11). It's the network's most popular program.

Powerpuff merchandise has flooded stores. From bed linens, wrist watches, videos, and a rock 'n' roll CD to back- to-school necessities like notebooks and lunch boxes, the "girls" seem to be everywhere.

Subway, the chain of sandwich shops, recently began offering toy Powerpuffs with its children's meals. Laurie Goldberg, a Cartoon Network spokeswoman, estimates that Powerpuff-related sales surpassed the $200 million mark several weeks ago.

"It's hot," says Patty Morris, spokeswoman for Target Stores, the Minneapolis-based retail chain. "It's not quite Pokemon when Pokemon first came out, but let's just say it's one of our categories that is performing very well."

The Powerpuff Girls is also groundbreaking. Not just for its stylized look -- the girls' super-sized eyes pay tribute to Walter Keane's '70s paintings of little children. And not just for its campy humor -- slightly more bizarre than old-timers like Underdog or the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show, and with fewer puns.

An example of their wit: When the mayor, a short, monacle-wearing, wholly incompetent politician, gives a campaign speech, he sounds positively Kennedyesque: "Ich bin ein Townsviller," he tells the crowd in Episode 10, "Impeach Fuzz."

But even more noteworthy, it may be the first truly popular animated show featuring female superheroes that are neither perpetual victims nor sexualized in the typical male teen fantasy manner.

"If you're a girl and you needed a cartoon character to identify with, who would you pick?" says Linda Simensky, Cartoon Network's vice president for original animation, who credits Japanese anime like Sailor Moon for first breaking the girl action hero barrier. "It's not like the TV community has gone out of its way to create one for you."

Of course, neither did Cartoon Network. Simensky, who green-lighted the series two years ago for the network (it previously aired sporadically as a short in the mid-'90s), says she loved the show because it was entertaining and would have a broad appeal, not because it might create role-models for young women.

Simensky credits the show's success to Craig McCracken, the 29-year-old Californian who created the threesome from a short film he made while studying animation at the California Institute of the Arts. McCracken says he wanted to play with the juxtaposition of cuteness and toughness while exploring sisterly relations.

Yet the program clearly has touched a nerve, and not just in young girls. College students have launched Web sites dedicated to the program and dissecting the first 26 half-hour episodes. Sarah Jessica Parker is said to be a big fan and has reportedly asked for some Powerpuff fashions to wear on her own hit cable show, "Sex and the City."

The show also puts parents in a dilemma. Do you encourage girls to watch it because it depicts girls in a positive manner or discourage them because it's violent -- albeit cartoonish?

"I have mixed feelings about it," says Amy B. Jordan, director of research on children and media for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "You want to empower girls, but I'm not sure it's so good to follow the boy model of action-adventure with a bunch of toy knockoffs."

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