Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 4, 2002
Girls 3, Men 2

Two movies make saving the universe look like a total blast.


Both Men in Black II and The Powerpuff Girls Movie open in theaters this July 4 weekend. They’re both about superheroes saving the world, and they’re both fun, but one is a bit more so.

The original Men in Black was a sci-fi blockbuster that had all the genre’s trappings — realistically rendered aliens, superheroes saving the world, cool weapons that made big explosions — but successfully dared to take it all as a big joke. The sequel’s biggest loss is a more or less unavoidable one: The novelty value of the Men in Black universe is now gone. The filmmakers for Men in Black II (same director in Barry Sonnenfeld, different writers in Barry Fanaro and Robert Gordon) realize this, but they carry on admirably.

The sequel begins when Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a Kylothian creature conveniently disguised as a lingerie model, comes to Earth looking for something called “The Light of Zartha.” She needs it to rule the planet Zartha, and she’s willing to destroy our planet to get it. Agent Jay (Will Smith) must bring Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) out of retirement, restore all the memories that were zapped out of Kay’s brain at the end of the first movie, free MIB headquarters after Serleena takes the place hostage, and find the Light before she does.

The movie makes a medium-sized miscalculation in having Jay fall in love with a waitress (Rosario Dawson) who stumbles onto information about Serleena’s agenda. The movie’s too wispy to ask us for emotional involvement. It doesn’t help that there’s no chemistry between the romantic leads — Dawson brings nothing to this party. At least a luscious-looking Boyle brings the right attitude. You might wish she’d loosen up even further as a bombshell villain, but I suspect this is as far as she’s capable of going. Even Jones’ jaded professional routine seems to have lapsed into slight boredom.

Smith is left to hold this thing together, and he does himself proud. His Jay is more mature than his 1997 self, but he’s still recognizably the same guy with the same irreverent sense of humor. Smith deadpans many of his lines while allowing himself a few energetic outbursts, and the result shows some new dimensions of his comic persona. The story is weak, but the filmmakers don’t make the mistake of re-airing every funny joke from the original. Enough of the material clicks to make the movie enjoyable; the opening sequence gives the backstory via a cheesy re-enactment in the style of 1950s sci-fi. Like its predecessor, Men in Black II hits quickly and gets off the screen before it wears out its welcome.

Swifter, smarter, and more subversive is The Powerpuff Girls Movie. It’s based on a highly regarded tv show on the Cartoon Network, and it’s the best animated feature so far this year. In fact, not since South Park has a tv cartoon show translated so well to film.

The movie tells the story of how Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup became guardians of the city of Townsville. The three extremely cute little girls with superpowers were created after a chemical spill in a lab belonging to a kindly professor who ultimately decides to raise the kids. The citizens ostracize the girls, so a super-intelligent monkey named Mojo Jojo takes advantage and tricks them into helping him build a machine that’ll allow him to take over the world. When the girls discover the truth, they have to undo their own work and save Townsville from the apocalypse.

The movie stumbles a bit in the middle while the girls feel sad about being mistreated by ordinary people. The rest of the film, however, goes at a hellacious pace, and it’s not because the filmmakers are afraid to lose the audience’s attention. It’s because they’re driven by an unholy glee about wreaking havoc. Nobody gets killed here, but Townsville gets leveled at least three times (the first time from the girls playing tag). Say what you want about the strength of the material and the Powerpuff Girls as female role models, but it’s the movie’s appetite for destruction that really sets it apart.

The pace will also encourage repeat business, since there’s no way to fully appreciate the script’s sophisticated web of wordplay and pop culture allusions in only one viewing. The tv show is known for its sharp writing, and it more than lives up to its rep here. (Mojo Jojo says, “For too long, apes and monkeys have languished under the thumb of Man. It is time to oppose that thumb!”) The jokes come so thick and fast that the movie can squeeze in a Jimmy Durante reference that’ll go over the heads of 98 percent of the audience. The film’s most inspired bit is a sequence in which Mojo Jojo’s newly created primate army turns on him: Instead of obedient lackeys, he’s given rise to thousands of super-intelligent monkeys who each have their own schemes for world domination. Not for the first time in the movie, total chaos ensues, and it’s funny as heck.

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