Methods and Mediums

M&M: PPG 2016 and the Purpose of Reboots

 

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It’s a little bit surreal to me that there are reboots of shows form my childhood. To be more specific, the fact that my ‘childhood’ was far enough ago to merit reboots is more than a little overwhelming. However, now that I live in the era of superhero movies, revivals of old video game franchises, and reboots of beloved old cartoons, I think it’s important for any storyteller to sit down and think a little bit about what exactly a ‘reboot’ means.

What is the point of bringing back an old series? Why not tell a new story in its entirety? If a character is ‘outdated’, why not just leave them in the past?

And because this is the most recent reboot that has affected me, to date, this post is going to focus on The Powerpuff Girls Reboot. The original multi-award-winning show, created by Craig McCracken of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Wander Over Yonder fame, had its original six season run from 1998 to 2005. It was a groundbreaking cartoon series in many ways, from its surreal use of self-aware narrator to the its quirky cast of characters, with the namesake trio (Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup) bringing a fascinating balance of humor, violence, and childish sweetness to the screen.

The Powerpuff Girls, although clearly targeted towards young girls, held universal appeal. In college, I know of several guys and non-binary individuals who think back on the show fondly, whether for the action, the humor, or just its availability in times of boredom. The show was one of Cartoon Network’s most profitable in history. Clearly the show has a beloved legacy to fans and is a tough act to follow in business. Why then would anyone even dare to take on the challenge of rebooting such a show, especially when the original creator is not a part of it?

Well, for a company, obviously the nostalgia grab money-making scheme, so that’s not the question to ask. What I meant was, what reasons are there for a storyteller to attempt to reboot a show?

In my opinion, there are only two correct answers to that:

1) The modern industry is lacking a series that has a similar spirit and style to the original, and although the original’s messages were told in a now outdated manner, the messages themselves are still relevant to the modern audience and just need reframing.

2) Undying love for the original.

Now, I do agree that The Powerpuff Girls satisfies the first category with ease, and only the creators of the reboot themselves can answer whether the second is true. However, from what I have seen of the reboot, it seems that the creators have failed to see through the potential of category 1 – although they call the show a reboot, I cannot sense the spirit of the original show in The Powerpuff Girls Reboot at all. Some people may berate me for seeing the past through nostalgia, but I would disagree.

I think that the new reboot is an alright show in its own right. It is not one that I or my childhood self would have enjoyed, but there are young girls out there who would. However, I also cannot see why this show could not have been about a new cast of characters completely. I cannot feel the style and substance of the original show in this reboot, and that in itself makes it a failure – at least as a reboot. Having seen and loved the original, I do not actually trust myself to judge it on its own merits as an individual show.

Some people who have not seen the original show might wonder what I consider different about the reboot. I mentioned humor, action, and violence, and it seems like the reboot has all three, right? I mentioned three little girls as the main characters, and that’s still true. However, just a glance at the two shows demonstrate a striking difference in intentions.

Okay, so I was looking for clips on the internet and thank you Cartoon Network Australia for having a bunch of previews, but the problem is that I have now watched all the clips and can’t decide which one to talk about, ahaha – there’s something to say about all of them. Maybe to be safe, I should talk about one of creator Craig McCracken’s favorite episodes…

McCracken lists “Beat Your Greens” (Season 2 Episode 5A) as his second favorite episode, and it was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award of Outsanding Animated Program.

Just in this clip, several values of the Powerpuff Girl style are immediately apparent. For one, The Powerpuff Girls was a show about young children with a child-like perceptions and problems. In this episode, it’s a familiar childhood distaste of broccoli, framed in a familial setting, with a clear sisterly relationship with a love towards their father-figure, Professor Utonium.

The show is very aware that it is a superhero show and seamlessly incorporates that element into its storytelling. The girls’ powers were simply a fact of their lives and narrative, making sure that the powers are used familiarly and consistently. The stylistic choice of the involved narrator is demonstrated in this clip as well.

Another important choice of the original series is its investment in wit. Even now, I chuckled at a joke that I had missed when I was a little kid – “a vegetable state”, they said. The whole episode was a pun. The original series, while making sure it was fun enough for the children, also made sure that it was smart enough for the older kids and adults.

The original Powerpuff Girls held a kind of wide appeal. Peter Marks of the New York Times said it best in his review back in 2000: “The Powerpuff Girls is the most popular original series on [Cartoon Network], its tongue-in-cheekiness reflecting […] a sensibility that goes in heavily for the sort of playful satire that can appeal as much to a viewer of 37 as 7.”

The original series was charming, had meaning, and it was witty. Those elements came together in the best way to make for a show that was enjoyable by people of any age and gender. The series also had to it a kind of dignity, and at least in my case, I found the show respectable. As a child, I enjoyed it for what it was, but as I grew older and capable of understanding subtext and metaphors, I admired it for its simple yet intelligent storytelling.

Another preview that showcases this value is “The Bare Facts” (Season 1 Episode 9B):

The story is, again, about children with childlike issues while keeping in mind that the girls involved are also superheroes. It’s the foundation of the plot. Each of the girls’ have a distinct personality that is also reminiscent of real people. “Why is everything always about you?” Buttercup demands at Blossom’s self-centered retelling of events, an outburst that many siblings, and even friends and colleagues, can relate to.

And then, there’s the title. Oh, boy, the title. (spoiler alert) After all that setup, it turns out at the end that the reason the girls were laughing so much was because the Mayor was lacking clothes. This was a pun that I missed when I was six years old, but in adulthood I can now fully appreciate it and I laugh at the subtle humor. Even to this day, I find the humor in the original series incredibly clever.

The girls in the reboot are no longer kindergarten students, and – to me at least – the humor no longer has wit.

That isn’t even touching upon the fact that this episode was, explicitly stated by the creators, meant to be an attempt at tackling a metaphor for trans issues. They bungled that by not getting sufficient feedback from the necessary channels that might have helped them to not create an extremely harmful presentation of trans issues. In fact, the cultural insensitivity of the newest iteration of the Powerpuff Girls is a whole other issue, but I’ll touch upon that later. The point is, the humor of the reboot is of a different brand of the original, and I don’t think it was a beneficial change.

Executive Producer Nick Jennings stated  that, with their reboot, they hoped to establish the Powerpuff Girls as “stronger personalities” so that they could “write stories that are more relatable to people.” To be honest, I think they failed. The original girls had distinct personalities, distinct problems, and room for personal growth. The girls of the reboot, to me, feel too restricted to too few character traits, less like characters and more like tropes.

That aside, the original show could already be related to – by a more diverse audience, in fact! – in far more subtle ways. Because the titular characters were approximately five years old, their problems were always indeed simple. However, this simplicity allowed for actual young children to relate directly to the show, and it allowed the older audiences to draw out the underlying messages and apply those to their own circumstances in more sophisticated ways.

Bubbles was a beloved character, often voted above her sisters when it came to popularity polls on Cartoon Network. To have her, even for a moment, find empowerment in something as simple as glasses was helpful to many children. The issue here was one kids can relate to on a direct scale – it’s the bullies who are wrong for making fun of you for having glasses, not you for having glasses – but one that an older audience can apply to a less literal translation in their lives.

In the reboot’s attempts to be relatable to their audience, they have proposed the following:

 

This is, also, only touching upon the storytelling elements of the reboot that I find at odds with the spirit of the original series, not mentioning the blatant animation error they had in the very first teasers and episode of the series:

 

 

 

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