Of Men and Girls 

Men In Black II and Powerpuff Girls aren't just movies; they're marketing bonanzas.

Men In Black was something of an anomaly: an effects-generated summer blockbuster that was actually more fun than anticipated. Like George Lucas' recent Star Wars movies, this series is basically a cartoon, with half of every frame digitally animated. But if Star Wars' cartoon sensibility is that of pulpy sci-fi cover art come to life, Barry Sonnenfeld's Men In Black is more like a space-age Looney Tunes.

Sonnenfeld's first foray into the workings of a mythical INS for extraterrestrials was inventive and charming up until its dully conventional action climax, Will Smith's charismatically nonchalant braggadocio and Tommy Lee Jones' deadpan gruffness updating and improving on the salt-and-pepper buddy-flick comedy approach of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in the 48 Hours movies but freeing the concept of its racially charged undertones in the course of a gentle satire on negotiating the diversity of modern urban life.

The actual plot of the first movie escapes me (some kind of saving-the-planet thing), but plot hardly mattered because we were encountering a fascinating new world for the first time and were too busy scanning the background to care how the dots were being connected; the viewer could while away an air-conditioned hour or so just taking in the cool gadgets, sleek furniture, and gaggle of alien "scum" that littered the Men In Black headquarters. Besides, the movie skipped along too briskly to get worked up about narrative lapses.

This time out, the equally slapdash and pointless plot (an evil alien has come to steal something -- it's hard to figure out exactly what -- that can destroy Earth, and Smith's and Jones' agents Jay and Kay have to stop her) is more of a stumbling block. The film is merely a visual rehash of something we've already seen.

Rather than attempt to further the original story, Sonnenfeld and company seek to repeat the same formula in streamlined, dumbed-down fashion. And so most of what was fresh the first time around seems stale here. Rather than the sly gags of the first film, MIIB (as the marketers are writing it) reaches desperately for easy laughs with moments of Adam Sandler-style gross-out humor and obvious (yet unavoidably effective) crowd-pleasers like a talking pug who sings "I Will Survive" and barks along with "Who Let the Dogs Out."

Rip Torn returns as supervising agent Zed, but in place of the dry, crisp demeanor that was so entertaining in the first film, they have him engaging in gravity-defying fight scenes à la The Matrix and uttering out-of-character comments about the Kama Sutra for the sole purpose of setting up a stupid Will Smith double take. Linda Fiorentino, who was set up as Smith's new partner to end the first film, has been axed, unfortunately, and replaced by a game Rosario Dawson, who, as a conventional love interest, doesn't have much to do.

There's some good new stuff here. It's hard to argue with the stunt casting of Lara Flynn Boyle as a reptilian alien baddie named Serleena. And her assistant, Scrad (Jackass Johnny Knoxville), is a two-headed buffoon who makes a compelling sight gag. Other moments, such as a multilimbed alien working inside a post-office sorting machine and a universe of small creatures who live within a Grand Central Terminal locker, are more reminiscent of the inventiveness of the first film.

MIIB also has an uneven tone in relation to the first movie. At times, it assumes a working knowledge of the first, and at other times, it clumsily goes out of its way to give context to the audience ("Agent Kay! He was the most dangerous man on earth, the most famous MIB agent ever," a succession of bit players repeatedly exclaim, just in case we weren't suitably excited about the return of Tommy Lee Jones).

The first installment of Men In Black agreeably evoked a wealth of sources -- The X-Files, Joe Dante (the underrated auteur behind Gremlins and Small Soldiers), comic books, cartoons, and Sonnenfeld's earlier Addams Family films. It was a fun movie.

The new one attains the same good-time vibe only sporadically. And what it reminds me of most is that commercial from a few years ago in which a group of Hollywood suits present a series of tie-ins and ancillary products for a film before the studio head asks about the script, to which they reply that they can knock that out in a couple of days.

The principle players have been locked up, flashy casting decisions put in place, new creatures and gadgets dreamed up, product-placement deals inked (Sprint and Burger King particularly noticeable), Will Smith single and video produced, etc. But no one seems to have spent much time figuring out why the movie needs to exist outside of its profit potential for a movie studio. If sportswriter Tony Kornheiser hadn't beaten them to it with the title of his recent book, the studio could have tagged this Men In Black II: Back For More Cash.

-- Chris Herrington

If there is one thing to aspire to in the cartoon kingdom, it is the success of The Simpsons. The formula is deceptively simple: The kiddies get bright colors and preadolescent characters; their parents get sly humor and subtle satire. And the result? A marketing bonanza. Remember the shirts that read "Don't have a cow, man" or the dance, the Bart-man?

To reach this type of success, a show doesn't have to be as socially aware as The Simpsons; it just has to resonate with wildly different audiences. It has to have something for everyone.

One of my friends, a 23-year-old woman, loves the Powerpuff Girls. She loves the TV show; she loves the characters; but she especially loves the merchandise. She loves to carry around her Powerpuff Girls lunchbox and wear her Powerpuff Girls T-shirt. I think she feels a connection with Buttercup, the surliest of the three Cartoon Network superheroines. The Powerpuff Girls, in other words, already has a very healthy audience of kids and "adults." Which I guess is what makes the film a little disappointing. To adults.

Originally conceived as the Whoopass Girls (a name I rather like), The Powerpuff Girls came to Cartoon Network as a series of shorts in 1995 and as a regular series in 1998. The movie is the backstory, the prequel, or the creation myth, if you will, of Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles.

Professor Utonium is unhappy about Townsville's moral decay, so he decides to create a perfect little girl whom he can raise to do good for the town. But, like the beginnings of so many superheroes, something goes wrong while he's in the lab.

His monkey/lab assistant Jojo accidentally adds "Chemical X" to the professor's mixture of sugar, spice, and everything nice. One explosion later, the professor has three precocious youngsters with superpowers on his hands.

Like the television show, the movie has a stylishly mod feel: The professor's bachelor pad is straight out of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson flick with a touch of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It all hearkens back to a simpler, sweeter era, except it's infused with non-stop action and a score full of fast rock.

What's disappointing is that the movie is essentially a longer version of the show, and there's nothing really new here. The girls' creation, while not revealed in the series, came as no surprise. The plot seems to clumsily straddle catering to the show's hard-core fans while introducing the material to new audiences. There's a chase scene that made me realize how much animation can make live action look dull, but for the most part, the film was a tad predictable for my taste.

However, that's my taste. The simple ideas and warmed-over concepts are perfect for the younger set. Throughout the film, the kids in the theater were laughing and giggling. And on the way out, many of them were already jumping, jabbing, and posturing, taking on the roles of the girls and their archenemy, Mojo Jojo.

I bet they're already begging their parents to buy them the T-shirt.

-- Mary Cashiola

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