Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Dean Israelite
Stars: Becky G, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston, Dacre Montgomery, David Denman, Elizabeth Banks, Ludi Lin, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler
Released: March 24th, 2017
I was six years-old in 1993 when the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted stateside and I could not have been more enthralled with the goofy series. It was as if someone had taken all the tropes and character archetypes I could have imagined in a super hero series and shot them at the screen with a paintball gun. The bright colors, the over-the-top antagonists, and the general playbook each episode followed may have both satisfied and informed what I thought the general public expected super hero lore to fulfill, it was so early in my life I can hardly remember what I knew prior, but whether it was one or both the fact remains that Power Rangers was a cornerstone of my childhood and one that I have always had a great amount of fondness for. I’ve even gone so far as to write a first draft of a novel based on an idea that spurned from the series and what it might have been like had it matured with its viewers a la Harry Potter, but now that we have this re-boot I may want to start in on the sophomore effort. Anyway, the point is-for this reason and everything else I’ve mentioned thus far I was beyond excited to see what this modern day interpretation of the material had to offer. Directed by Dean Israelite, the guy who made Project Almanac, this new Power Rangers movie essentially combines the conviction of The Breakfast Club characters with the plight of those in Josh Trank’s Chronicle from 2012. And in similar style. Granted, this is combined with all the hallmarks of what made the original series so fun, but you get the picture. And so, how does this latest nostalgia-fueled re-boot fare in terms of satisfying a lifelong fan? Pretty damn well. In fact, far better than expected in terms of the aspect that will guarantee it the most staying power as a franchise-it’s core cast of charismatic and ultimately formidable teens. It’s refreshing, weirdly, for despite the fact everything in Power Rangers is more or less recycled from the series and other sources the movie as a whole manages to revitalize in the way it was no doubt intended.
If you’re not familiar with the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or any of its many, many iterations over the past nearly twenty-five years then you may find this admittedly silly piece of fluff all the more endearing. In contrast to the original series that explained the origins of the story through its theme song this latest Power Rangers actually delves deeper into its villain’s motivations by creating a mythology I hadn’t heard prior. Sixty-five million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, it seems Zordon (Bryan Cranston) was the original Red Ranger while Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks) held the title of the Green Ranger. The Red Ranger was protecting the Earth’s zeo crystal, an ancient, but powerful artifact that can apparently access what is called the “Morphing Grid” that allows Rangers access to their armor. Banks’ Rita goes rogue and wants to possess the power of the zeo crystal in the interest of self-gain and world domination (naturally), but before she can get her hands on it, Zordon and his fellow Rangers sacrifice themselves to hide the crystal and banish Rita deep below the Earth’s surface until five unsuspecting teenagers find the power coins one night in the mines of a small, unsuspecting fishing town called Angel Grove. This positions them as being worthy to be the next team of Power Rangers-the coins chose them-or so they are told after they dig a little deeper and find an entire spaceship buried under the Earth that has trapped Zordon in a sort of middle dimension where he’s projected as a floating head and assisted by an alien robot who calls himself Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader).
After being told the power behind the respective coins they have recently become in possession of and understanding they must come together as a team in order to morph into their armor Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Billy (RJ Cyler), Zack (Ludi Lin), and Trini (Becky G) are more or less ready to run for the hills. It is not in the mythology or “Morphing Grid” that Power Rangers finds its greatest strengths though (which you’d expect), but rather in the simple drama that is born out of each of these individuals lives and the bonds that come to be formed between each of them. Jason is the town golden boy who blew out his knee playing high school football and has responded by acting out and getting himself put in detention. Following a similar path is Kimberly who was once a popular cheerleader, but has since become a social outcast thanks to an act of spite that has caused her much regret and placed her in the same detention class as Jason. The last of the detention gang is Billy. Billy and Jason quickly unite in their shared opposition to bullies while Zack has a sick mom who he’s skipping school to take care of and Trini who has parents that want so bad for their family to be normal that they don’t even realize they’re only alienating their daughter the more they push her. These small, human elements lend Power Rangers what is not necessarily the now taboo “dark and gritty” tone, but rather ground it in a reality to which its target demographic might wholly relate. It should be noted that much of this has to do with the performances of the five leads as this seemingly could have turned out any number of ways, but each of the five individuals playing this new team of Power Rangers are really good. They are extremely likeable and most importantly, sincere in the emotional events each of them are asked to relay.
All of that said, this first movie is very much a test run and while the fact this is so obvious is a bit annoying what’s worse is that it earns its big, flashy moments and then doesn’t take the time to relish in them. What should have felt like the most exciting part of the movie was easily the least. Meaning that by far the most conventional aspect of the film is the final battle between two fully computer generated characters with zero personality. Rather than using these five individuals they’ve built up and fleshed out for an hour and half the film resorts to becoming an inferior Transformers in its only major action set piece. We don’t even get a full-length sequence of the Rangers in their sleekly updated armor doing outrageous amounts of backflips and karate-which is what we want and deserve-but instead are only delivered a brief underwater and then enclosed terrain encounter with Rita’s henchmen, the putties, that comes and goes before you can soak it all in. Just as quick as the Rangers have emerged from the command center wearing their armor and, for the first time in the flick, are fully capable of taking on the evil Repulsa they are resigned to sitting inside their dinozords and talking back and forth to one another with little else to do acting or action-wise other than maneuver their hands and squinch their faces. Like I said, this is very much a first chapter; an introduction designed to test the waters as inexpensively as possible before launching into full on franchise mode and while I hope this franchise indeed sees many, many more movies I’m also hopeful the creative team behind these things don’t fully lean in that direction from now on and abandon the rich character aspects that are executed so seamlessly here, but rather find the balance of the two this one is sorely lacking.
Now, level expectations are critical when walking into Power Rangers as this carries on those goofy traditions of the original series if not fully in tone, but in its approach to humor and to the bold color scheme and campy character traits that more or less defined those who generate the need for such heroes as the Power Rangers. As an entertaining romp through an analogy of teens figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world and the society they’re surrounded by in the guise of a super hero movie it surprisingly works on more levels than that of a conveyor belt blockbuster. That may sound a tad outlandish considering these teens look to a floating head and alien robot for advice, but Israelite and his team of screenwriters pick a throughline theme and stick with it. Having this main idea motivate all aspects of the character decisions and eventual heroics allows the film to have a clear focus and elicit a genuine emotional response from the viewer. I like that the screenplay has added more depth to the history between Rita and Zordon, I really like the character designs and the motivation and forethought that went into such designs, but it is the downfall of not giving these elements time to breathe once it’s established them that make the whole of Power Rangers less than the sum of its parts. By rushing through the third act, the act featuring everything fans of the franchise wanted to see the movie culminate with, it almost feels as if the movie itself is trying to hide the most glaring aspects that make it a Power Rangers movie. Worst of all this is for seemingly no other reason than to be conservative with its running time. The movie might have rectified the shortchanging of its finale by devoting just as much time to our heroes using their newly learned skills as it does on the middle “training” section where they earn their abilities. The redeeming factor is that both the introduction to our main characters (Jason, Billy, and Kimberly slightly outweighing Zack and Trini) and the development of their friendship through to the point it legitimately determines their success as a team is so well done. It also doesn’t hurt someone like Cranston is lending his credible talent to the project while Banks is camping it up and deliciously chewing scenery every chance she gets. I’m hopeful the inevitable sequel gives Banks more time to develop her baddie as well as giving the Rangers more time to stretch their muscles, but most of all-we need Bulk and Skull.