Millennial nostalgia is in full gear on Cartoon Network: today, The Powerpuff Girls returns to the air with the series’ first new episodes since 2005 (notwithstanding a couple of one-off specials in the intervening decade).
The rebooted show, though, is going to be substantially different from Craig McCracken’s original. For one, Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup have new voice actors. Amanda Leighton, Kristen Li, and Natalie Palamides take over, respectively, for Cathy Cavadini, Tara Strong, and Elizabeth Daily. When the news broke last year, Strong tweeted that she felt stabbed in the heart; to a certain extent, so do we, at least from the few episodes we’ve been fortunate enough to preview. Strong’s performance as Bubbles was particularly iconic, so Li has her work cut out for her. Palamides, on the other hand, already shines as Buttercup, perfectly capturing the Tough One’s grit, but infusing surprising emotional depth.
The reboot is going to have to rely on that emotional depth to succeed. If you’re looking for a stylistic replica of the original, don’t hold your breath; executive producers and longtime Cartoon Network veterans Nick Jennings and Bob Boyle give their version the same feel as many of the channel’s current shows, with more focus on story and less on idiosyncratic animation. Gone is the iconic “The City of Townsville” opening; gone is the Narrator as a major character; gone is the neo-1950s aesthetic that made The Powerpuff Girls stand out in its time. So for the new series to approach the level of soul of the original, the storytelling is going to have to be fantastic, and the girls themselves are going to have to become more dynamic characters than they ever were in the past. From what we’ve seen so far of the reboot, the potential for that to happen is there, but it’ll likely take a while for us to get accustomed to the very different comedic sensibilities and animation style, which hasn’t quite clicked yet. We’re reserving final judgment for now—but still excited to see where new adventures will take us.
Paste caught up with Jennings and Boyle to talk about how they approached adapting The Powerpuff Girls for a modern Cartoon Network audience.
Paste Magazine: How did you both get offered the mantle for The Powerpuff Girls, and what was it like being asked to reboot such a legendary series?
Nick Jennings: It was fantastic. Both Bob and I were working at Cartoon Network. I was working on Adventure Time, I’d been on there for six seasons or so, and they started talking about rebooting The Powerpuff Girls. I jumped at the chance. I was a huge fan when it came out, I was super excited about that style of animation at the time, and here we were, 15-20 years later and they’re gonna start it up—and I was asked to come on board. It was a real honor. It’s a real honor to be on it, for sure.
Bob Boyle: I was actually here at Cartoon Network also, working on Clarence. Same thing, really. Once I heard that they were gonna do it, I was chomping at the bit and basically would not be denied. It’s a really influential show, it’s such a great universe and such great characters. The chance to add to that legacy is great.
Paste: What influence would you say the series had on the world of kids’ animation?
Jennings: It was a very popular show at the time. I think it was coming out of a lot of the old Hanna-Barbera stuff, the UPA [United Production Artists, an animation studio that flourished in the 1950s] and Hanna-Barbera and the way they were doing cartoons. I felt like when The Powerpuff Girls started, it sort of had this perfect blend of anime and some of these UPA, and what they were doing at Hanna-Barbera and they sort of came up with a whole new visual vocabulary and how to tell a story. This snappy type of animation. That was really influential, it was really influential in the animation world. People were looking at it and going, “Oh my god, this is a whole new way of working, a whole new way of thinking.” And of course that sparked all kinds of other shows from that point forward, that made either Cartoon Network or other studios.
Boyle: I think it was wildly important for Cartoon Network, and then it was one of their creator-driven shows that was a big success. So it sort of set the model for all the other shows to come.
Jennings: I also think it was influential in the sense that the main characters were girls. Up to that point you didn’t really have a lot of main characters that were girls in animation, and here were these little teeny girls with kickass powers. That contrast and that dynamic was so different, and so crazy and so cool. It was influential for everybody, but I think it was especially influential for a lot of girls.
Paste: You mentioned that this was really influential for creator-driven shows: did you guys talk to Craig McCracken at all when you were working on the reboot?
Jennings: No, we didn’t. I think Craig’s under contract over at Disney right now. I mean, one of the things that we were tasked to do was give it a new vibe, give it a new tone, update it in a way that’s gonna resonate with the audiences of today. We had the original show to look at, and that was all we kinda really needed. For us, we took a good amount of time at the beginning, looked at a lot of what was being done on the original show and going through it and being like, “Okay, do we wanna keep this, is this gonna work? Is this part, is that part gonna work, what do we need to update?”
And as we moved along in that process, we started seeing what we had, what we were developing, and we started looking less and less at what it was and started looking at what it is now, and then you’re trying to build off of that and create something that resonates on its own. It’s not about trying to play second fiddle to the original. Basically, it’s taking the original and trying to expand on it, explore with it, dig deeper into it. And we’re very respectful of the original—we’re huge fans of the original, we’re honored to be working on it. So the last thing we wanna do is age ‘em up, put ‘em in roller skates, and send ‘em to Mars. We wanna take what’s really great about the original show and make it even better.
Boyle: I think we started out as anybody would, thinking, “What would Craig do here, how would Craig handle this?” Once we got into it, we started thinking of it more as its own thing, its own version. And we’re different people with different tastes—we’ve got a completely new crew, and it’s a different time. Storytelling is different now than episodes in the late ‘90s. So clearly it’s gonna be a different show, and at a certain point we really embraced that.
Paste: So what are the most substantive changes you’ve made on the show? And in what way would you say that storytelling has evolved in kids’ animation?
Boyle: One of the big things is we took the girls out of kindergarten and put them into a K-12 school, which for us was really an opportunity to create more story situations. Once you put them into a K-12 environment, they can deal with clubs, and different teachers, and cliques, and popular girls, and mean girls and bullies and all of those sort of things. Those are real good prompts to deal with more mature, more sophisticated stories in some way.
Another thing we kinda had to do, because of technology, was give the girls cell phones. Instead of the classic hot line, now they get calls on their cell phones, and we tied it into the original hot line with the same sort of face that that had, but now it’s on their cell phones. It’s part of storytelling now, and it’s really changed how you can tell a story too. You can move things around a lot quicker, you can get information very quickly on cell phones.
Jennings: The other thing too is that we dug a lot deeper with the girls’ personalities, just to make our storytelling more relatable to our audiences. I think that’s a really important factor. When you watch the original show, you get to know them to an extent, but there’s a certain point that you don’t really get to know them past. We wanna create this sort of honest, sincere type of storytelling. And you see a lot of that type of storytelling in Adventure Time and Steven Universe. So it’s very much the way animation is now for kids. It’s not as big and broad, which it was more like that in the mid-’90s and it was great then. But everything evolves. So for us, it was like, let’s take those sort of sensibilities and apply them to this classic series and land in this new place, this new world.
Boyle: In Adventure Time and Clarence, the characters can just be out in the woods, walking around, and a great part of the episode is just the banter between the two characters, between Jake and Finn, or between Clarence and his buddies. So we tried to infuse that into our show. Clearly our show has more action, it’s still a little bit more of a pure comedy with action in it. But we still wanted to have those moments where the girls could be around the kitchen table, spending that time with them in their room. I think that’s how you’re able to connect with the characters a bit more in this iteration.
Paste: Was there any inclination to have overarching storylines the way that Adventure Time and Steven Universe do, where you have real dynamic character growth?
Jennings: We did talk about that sort of stuff. I think The Powerpuff Girls predominantly lives really strong in the comedy world, and it’s predominantly a comedy with action. And we find that the 11-minute format works really great for comedy. Once you start building longer, bigger, arcing stories, stories become more dramatic because you need the space to be higher. And it moves away from being so comedic and becoming more dramatic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that when you’re trying to do a comedy, it moves away from what’s really working for you. We do have some stories that are two-parters and three-parters, you’ll see some of those coming up. And those are really exciting and fun for us. But overarching, seasonal things, we don’t do too much of that.
Paste: One thing about the humor in the reboot: it’s full of these sort of call-out moments, brash breaks in the action. What was behind that approach?
Jennings: I think when you talk about action sequences and you’re talking about a comedy show, a lot of times the action sequences don’t move the story forward in the sense. So for us, it was like, “How do we break this action up, how do we make this interesting?” So a lot of times when the girls are fighting, you’ll see them arguing. or talking, or commenting—or other people will be commenting on things that are going on during the action. The action for us isn’t terribly interesting in the sense that they’re punching monsters and flying around. We have given the girls new powers and things like that, which we’re gonna introduce later in the series, but there’s only so many ways you can do action in a television budget. So we’re like, “Okay, let’s concentrate on other parts of that to make it work.”
Paste: What happened to the iconic “The City of Townsville” opening line?
Boyle: We still occasionally use it. We went along, we found it could be a little bit limiting in the kind of stories that we wanted to tell. We use it whenever we really need it, and we actually used it a little bit more. But again, we just wanna tell different kinds of stories and be open to ending the story in a different way with those funny, immediate beats. The narrator just kind of puts you in a little bit of a box.
Paste: We’ve gotta end with this: can you both share your favorite episodes of the old Powerpuff Girls series?
Boyle: Gosh, there’s so many. I mean, some of the very first episodes were really seminal for me. I liked that crazy villain Roach Coach.
Jennings: He had that big body and it was all full of roaches and Bubbles was scared of roaches. That was a pretty good one.
Boyle: You know, in the original series, they did focus more on the villains driving the show forward, and that’s a good example. It was still a really fun one.
Jennings: I think any of them with Mojo [Jojo] in them have to be up there.
Boyle: Mojo’s such a great comedic villain. He’s so perfect opposite the girls, any time he’s on camera he’s really fun. I can also tell you I really despised Him, that really creeped me out.
Jennings: He’s the scariest thing cuz he’s kind of real and intangible. It took Bob the first half of the first season to say, “Okay, I guess we can put Him in there in some way. Not too big, not too much.”
Paste: There’s just something terrifying about Him. Comes down to the tutu.
Jennings: He’s actually a great character for now. We talk about things going on the world, views, how you see your body, how you see people around you, how people view you. He’s a great character.
The Powerpuff Girls premieres tonight, April 4, on Cartoon Network at 6:00 p.m. EST, with new episodes airing every day for the next two weeks.
Zach Blumenfeld is an editorial intern at Paste, and he’s not ashamed to say that The Powerpuff Girls got him through LSAT studying in 2014. Follow him on Twitter.