It would be easy to dismiss the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers many of us grew up with in the 1990s. With its low production values, cheesy costumes, cheesier monsters, and campy action, those who didn't watch it probably would deem it pretty forgettable. In fact, I've seen and heard many a critic do exactly that over the last few weeks. But the franchise has been alive and well for longer than it ever came to our shores, and remains one of the highest-grossing properties on the planet. So it's no surprise that Saban would want to make a big budget Power Rangers movie a reality, with all-new stars and effects that look like they came straight from the Michael Bay School of Excess. What's somewhat surprising, though, is that it all works surprisingly well; well enough that it might not be embarrassing to shout "It's morphin time" in a crowded theater. Ok, maybe not that well.
Directed by Dean Israelite, who coincidentally DOES come from the Michael Bay school having directed his found footage time travel flick, Project Almanac, this version of Power Rangers has more of an origin story than the TV show ever did. You could say it has too much of one, actually. Taking its cues from the Chronicle playbook, the film is an extended training and bonding session between five teenage misfits with super powers. The refreshingly diverse cast is comprised of RJ Cyler as Billy the eventual Blue Ranger, an autistic kid who finds it hard to make friends; he's joined by Dacre Montgomery as Zack the Red Ranger, a natural leader who we meet as he's going through a rebellious phase that ruins his football career; Naomi Scott as Kimberly the Pink Ranger, a former mean girl dumped by her cliq; Becky G as Trini the Yellow Ranger, a loner often referred to a the "crazy girl"; and Ludi Lin as Zack the Black Ranger, who isn't as tough as he pretends to be. All of them have issues; in fact three of them meet in high school detention like a comic book version of The Breakfast Club. Fate, and an overzealous Billy, eventually guides the five of them to the same cavern at the same time where they discover powerful "coins" that grant them amazing powers. "Are we more like Spider-Man or Iron Man?", wonders Billy as his strength and reflexes reach superhuman levels.
Power Rangers is always at odds with taking itself too seriously and embracing the original's cornball aspects. For instance, the film begins with a super dark, prelude that often looks like a straight remake of the Adi Shankar short that enthused fans a couple of years ago. It shows an older team of Power Rangers, led by Zordon (Bryan Cranston) being mercilessly defeated by the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). That's pretty cool...but she's still named Rita Repulsa, which makes her hard to take so seriously. Rita is revived in the present day and must rebuild her gold monster, Goldar, to destroy all of humanity, and the only way she can do that is by robbing jewelry stores and mugging homeless people. Er, okay, that's just silly. Zordon, meanwhile, is now a giant head on the wall of a spaceship, where he and his robot pal Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader) must now train this new group of Rangers who seem to have no teamwork skills, no fighting ability, and nothing in common. Zordon ain't got patience for that.
And train they do, for about 75% of the movie. Much of the story, penned by Real Steel's John Gatins, is about these five strangers becoming a team. It doesn't happen easily; they battle in a glorified Danger Room but can't figure out how to "morph" into the super badass heroes they are meant to be. Zordon's frustration at this is pretty funny because you kind of expect Cranston to pull a Breaking Bad on these young fools. A great deal of time is spent getting to know who the Rangers are as people, watching them as they find common ground, make mistakes, and battle back. So when they finally do come together and figure out the whole "morphin" thing, we understand what being a Power Ranger is all about. Plus, the film doesn't screw up the easiest part which is capturing the sheer exhilaration of discovering their powers and pushing them to the limits.
It just takes too long before the action really kicks in. The film is nearly over when the battle with Rita Repulsa gets going, and those who have a Zordon-level of patience may have already checked out. Once the fighting begins there's an attempt to capture some of the wonkiness of the TV series. Banks enjoys every cackle as the wildly over-the-top Repulsa, leading her army of "putty" minions into martial arts combat ripped right from the show. We even get a brief "Go go Power Rangers" theme song for about 30 seconds before something generically pop-flavored kicks in. It doesn't stay fun for long, that's the problem. Even the Rangers' suits are a bulky, overly-accessorized drag. Their robotic Zords no longer look like ancient beasts, but spare parts from a Transformers movie. And don't even get me started on the bland, unimpressive Megazord. He should be huge, flashy, and make you saw "WOW" when he is finally formed. It's supposed to be a big deal, but isn't made to look that way.
While definitely imperfect, Power Rangers has assembled the first piece in what could be a successful franchise. If producers want it to last six movies as they hope, they'll need to figure out which audience they want to target for the long haul. If it's nostalgia, they should have the courage to "go go" with that and not morph into something so serious.
Rating: 3 out of 5