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."
In Episode 13, "Uh Oh Dynamo," for instance, the girls clobber a 7-eyed giant fish balloon, a masked robber, a giant octopus, and their arch-nemesis Mojo Jojo, a genius monkey. At the professor's insistence, they use a giant rocket-wielding robot that ends up destroying most of Townsville in an homage to the Godzilla movies.
Bob Thompson, a professor of film and television at Syracuse University, thinks the show is a positive development for young women, even if parents may initially be a little disturbed by its violence.
"It gives girls a chance to have some of the fantasies that men have had," he says, comparing its sensibilities and self-mocking quality to some of the classic Warner Brother cartoons like Bugs Bunny.
"In many ways, it's like a classic cartoon with an extra bit of hipness," says Thompson.
Renee Schlerf of Abingdon admits she was a little concerned when her 8-year-old daughter, Hillary, first started tuning in five months ago. But she's grown to appreciate the show and her daughter's enthusiasm for it.
"It's great to show superheroes who are little girls and not just boys. It gives her someone to look up to," says Schlerf, whose 4-year-old son also watches but not as enthusiastically. "And the villains aren't all that scary. It seems pretty fair."
Hillary, who owns a Powerpuff T-shirt, nightgown, beach towel and drinking cup, says it's her favorite cartoon and the only one she makes a point not to miss.
"One of the best shows on TV," she says proudly.
Hoping to capitalize on the show's popularity, Cartoon Network is making more Powerpuff Girls episodes, and expects to have a total of 50 by year's end. A feature-length movie is planned for release in two years.
Executives at the cable network say they're not quite sure why Powerpuffs has become such a hit. When the shorts first aired five years ago, they didn't attract much of an audience. But Syracuse's Thompson thinks he knows the reason the show has turned out big -- it's appeal is not just to young girls but to both genders and all generations.
"For adults, it can be a surrealistic, hallucinogenic experience to watch this hip, self-aware program make fun of its own conventions," says Thompson, the founding director of the university's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "For little kids, it can be a rip-roaring good story."
A Girls guide
Who and what are The Powerpuff Girls? Here's a brief introduction to the hit animated series.
The set-up: Professor Utonium of Townsville mixes sugar, spice and everything nice with an accidental dose of Chemical X to create three perfect little crime-fighting girls with super powers.
The players: Buttercup, the toughest fighter, has the short, dark hair and the 'tude.
Blossom, the group's leader, has the big red bow and can be pushy.
Bubbles, the blond with braids, is considered the cutest of the group.
The plot: The Powerpuffs mix crime-fighting with the obligations of kindergarten at Pokey Oaks Elementary.
The villains: Mojo Jojo, the super-genius chimp, and a host of others including the devilish Him, Fuzzy Lumpkins, the Amoeba Boys, the Gangreen Gang and Roach Coach.
The best episode: Bubblevicious. When Bubbles grows tired of everyone dismissing her as a lightweight, she goes on a rampage to demonstrate she can be as hard-core as her sisters. Will Townsville ever be the same?
The time: "The Powerpuff Girls" airs weeknights at 8 on Cartoon Network.