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We are living in a golden age of animation. Not in terms of new technology, which is only in its frustrating infancy. Nor in the sense of the avant-garde or adults-only animation that flared and died in the ’70s thanks to comics-reared horny hipsters like Ralph Bakshi. But plain old cel animation, often storyboarded on computer, is happening all over regular cable and the Saturday-morning cereal hour. Cartoons have been doing smart, witty stuff for nearly 15 years, from sophisticated silliness such as Fox’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and NBC’s gothtoon Gravedale High up through the WB’s inspired Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain, but only recently has the animation itself been upgraded to be on par with the storytelling.

Thank the Cartoon Network for providing a home for these shows—Space Ghost, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and the smashing Samurai Jack (from Dexter’s Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky) being among the best to be found on the fairly obscure pay-cable netlet. But the most popular show—bedsheet- and calendar-popular—is The Powerpuff Girls, starring sweet Bubbles, smart Blossom, and irascible Buttercup, adorable kindergarteners with awesome powers who routinely rescue the city of Townsville from all kinds of campy nefariousness, including a turban-wearing mad monkey and the devil in fishnets. The girls are manga-derived, with enormous round eyes and curved nubs for limbs, but they’re not the mini-grown-ups of Japanimation; their crime-fighting prowess is tempered by the fact of their little-girlness, and they often have to pout or sulk until their creator-dad, Professor Utonium, bucks them up for another round of superstylized wham-pow action.

Comics taught the current crop of writers and animators about superhero storycraft, and The Powerpuff Girls Movie is a comic fan’s holy grail of narrative puzzle pieces: the origin story—the tale of how a superhero, even a pint-sized one or three, was first granted power. (Marvel began releasing Wolverine’s six-part story last fall, to the delight of patient X-Men droolers.) The movie begins when the sedate Townsville is being terrorized by street crime. Thugs threaten old ladies while cops lounge at the Donut Thing. Professor Utonium, a ’50s cliche with Brylcreemed hair who shops for groceries in his lab coat, decides that the city needs more sugar, spice, and everything nice. But the professor’s berserk lab monkey, Jojo, intervenes in his experiments, tossing some Chemical X into the mix, and the Powerpuffers are born. Like a good daddy, the professor sends the kiddies off to school, but they deploy their powers during a game of tag, destroying the city, the school, and a giant metallic olive, and turning the Townsville folk against them.

The film folds in many of the characters who appear in the TV series, among them the diminutive mayor, a white-mustachioed old-time toff taken directly from the Monopoly box, and his curvaceous, flame-haired assistant, whose face is never seen, in addition to Jojo in his pre-turban days. The mayor has the professor arrested, and the girls, dejected, are inveigled by canny Jojo to help in his scheme to build a Help-the-Town-and-Make-It-a-Better-Place Machine, actually a trick to bring all of the local primates under his control. But Jojo, who now calls himself Mojo Jojo, hasn’t counted on the rest of the local monkeyscape’s becoming power-mad exposed-brain psychopaths like himself. (Aah, hence the turban.) One by one, they claim dominion over Townsville in a very funny sequence—barrel-of-monkeys monkeys link up, Hacha Chacha the Jimmy Durante ape spreads out banana peels, Hota Wata unleashes his boiling torrent, and Bla Bla Bla Bla lets loose the red tide known as the tormato. Soon, all of Townsville is a zoo overrun by simians, and the Puffettes, hiding on a gray, rocky planet, bicker and grouse until they sense that the professor himself is in danger.

The action sequences have the grand stylization of ’60s TV, with backgrounds reduced to rush lines and quick cuts to emphasize scale from the street to the tops of towering buildings. (There’s also a hilarious running joke about a doggy in jeopardy, as well as numerous monkey-oriented groaners, atomic-disaster-movie-conscious asides from the flailing citizenry, and the inevitable, slightly cleaned up, “Take your hands off him, you darned dirty ape!”) The green glow of the lab in full bubble, the crepuscular gloom of the rocky planet, the cartoonish sizzle of the professor’s vintage Atomic Age bachelor pad all provide a gorgeous background for the simply drawn stars and their kid-friendly banter. It’s something of a relief that the dialogue is not a series of in-jokes aimed at the parents’ fragile boomer egos. The girls behave exactly the way they do on television (Scooby-Doo, where is your such-as-it-is Saturday-morning integrity?), but older kids will recognize the Jamie Hewlett-style thugs—slouching, sharp-toothed, much like the characters in Hewlett’s video for the Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood”—and adults will marvel at the sheer beauty of the drawings and the elegant pacing.

The Powerpuff Girls Movie is preceded by a Dexter’s Laboratory short, in which Dexter gets chicken pox (“Vat arrre dese strenge rehdd pustules?”) and must fight his impulse to scratch lest he turn into a mutant contaminated chicken. CP