Saban’s Mighty Morphers return in this franchise relaunch. Oscar tosses aside nostalgia to put Angel Grove’s heroes to the test.
From the outset of Lionsgate’s Power Rangers, I feared that it would be a tragic attempt to apply the dark and miserable formula of Chronicle to something as lighthearted and fun as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The alternative to that was to just be a middle of the road effort that nevertheless lacked the energy and campy charm of the original show. For the most part, the film is a big-budget adaptation of the very first episode, with bits and pieces of related Power Rangers lore thrown in. And it avoids the first outcome handily, having quite a few merits to prop itself up. However, as a nostalgic reviewer, my challenge is to be as upfront and fair with the film as possible.
In Angel Grove, football star Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) is thrown off the team and placed under house arrest after a failed prank. Whilst in detention, he encounters Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler) and Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott). Becoming fast friends, Jason and Billy head to an abandoned gold mine to explore, and attract the attention of Kimberly and fellow students Trini (Becky G) and Zack Taylor (Ludi Lin). Billy detonates a wall of rock, revealing five ancient coloured stones, the Power Coins. The police arrive and give pursuit to the teenagers, but their car is hit by a train. The five find themselves at home the next day, and discover they have been granted superhuman abilities. The five teenagers return to the mine, discover an ancient spaceship, and meet the ship’s android, Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), and the consciousness of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), the former Red Ranger. They inform the teenagers about the original Rangers and about Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), warning them that they have eleven days until Rita has her full power, finds the Zeo Crystal and uses it to destroy all life on Earth. The five teens leave the ship with no intention of returning until Zordon pleads with Jason to convince the team to prepare for Rita’s upcoming attack.
While the acting in the show was seldom good, this is one instance where the film is able to clearly improve upon the original. Montgomery has a believably flawed everyman quality to him, but he shows a streak of nobility over time and begins to feel like Jason from the show. Cyler very much imbues the spirit of the original Billy into his performance, and new additions such as being on the autistic spectrum are naturally integrated into his performance and making him the heart of the group. Scott does okay as Kimberly, not exactly having the valley girl spunk and optimism of her show counterpart, but is acceptable. Lin has a nice mix of humour and and attitude, but tended to have some of the weaker lines. Not to give Becky G too much heat, but she was the least enjoyable aspect of the team; she’s standoffish and bitter to the point of not caring about her. Cranston, a franchise veteran, lends himself well to the ancient “tough-love” mentor figure of Zordon. Hader is fine but feels very restricted by the script, and he does the customary “ai-yi-yi!” twice in a forced manner. Everyone has said Banks goes over-the-top as Rita, but I can tell you that her performance is subtle compared to her show counterpart, and to be fair, she owns it and livens up any moment with her scenery-chewing.
Dean Israelite’s direction is strong for a relatively inexperienced director. His style works well for the teenager-centric scenes, but doesn’t really come alive in the action beats, which feel very typical and only really work because of the innate appeal of the Rangers in action. Otherwise, it’s fairly standard chase or car action. But when it does get suspenseful, like the build-up to Rita’s revival, then it really works. The photography clearly updates the show’s style for more contemporary tastes. The washed-out blue and dark tones are fairly dominant throughout the first and second acts, up until they become the Power Rangers and it brightens up somewhat. Still, visually, it’s such a drastic overhaul from the show that not every fan is going to be taken in by it, and one could well ask… why didn’t they go even further into the look and feel of the source? They didn’t need to dumb down the writing to achieve it. Sometimes, the enterprise seems unsure of itself, not quite nailing the balance between the legacy and its new direction.
In terms of visual effects, it’s mostly average to pretty poor in places. The best effects are on Alpha and Zordon – those two characters felt real and sufficiently alien in appearance and character, and the Command Center had a cool atmosphere to it. The DinoZords look okay most of the time (way better than the CGI Zords in the 1995 movie), but don’t have a lot of presence or personality. The Putties, reimagined as rock golems, are decent, but Goldar also suffers from having a way-too-busy aesthetic with molten gold constantly moving about and looking like melted cheese.
Brian Tyler’s score is pretty paint by numbers, and frankly could have benefitted from a more metal/electric guitar-based sound rather than being a generic composition of the times. They also could have used the original theme music more thoroughly. The soundtrack throws in a lot of modern songs, or covers of classic songs, and few of them worked that well for me, though that might be more of a taste issue. There is one noteworthy exception, which I won’t spoil here, and it was very satisfyingly placed and awesome enough to fist-pump the air with joy.
The screenplay by John Gatins is decidedly self-aware, and the dialogue factors in how teenagers often talk with a lot of swearing. The comedy is varied and is both good and bad. Right after the prologue, there’s an incident involving Jason, a friend of his and a “male cow”, and the bar is set worryingly low. The teenagers have a good back-and-forth, but some of the recurring gags fell flat. The most annoying is when we don’t hear Trini’s name until after they have already received their powers and found the Command Center; Zack keeps referring to her as “Crazy Girl” even after they learn her name! That gave off the impression of a more dysfunctional group of friends. Despite that, it’s not annoying or immature like the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers movies, and a lot of time is spent on the arcs of the teens, developing their flaws, strengths and personal connections. Unfortunately, while there is a lot of obvious setup for the final twenty minutes, not everything is explained succinctly such as how the Rangers manage to pilot their Zords or form the Megazord without Zordon telling them about it.
Let’s talk about the infamous product placement you may have heard about. It’s not as prominent as one may think, at least until the final act. At first it’s funny, with Rita regarding Krispy Kreme with as much seriousness as the Nazis with the Ark of the Covenant. But it goes on for at least one scene too long with the Empress of Evil delighting herself with a glazed doughnut. Also, I could have done without the Rangers constantly referring to it during the height of the finale.
The film succeeds in presenting five protagonists befitting of the term “teenagers with attitude” – they aren’t the goody two-shoes of the original show. If the original Power Rangers feels dated with trappings of the 90s, the new film is very much dated in the 2010s. The original Rangers were very squeaky-clean and pretty cheesy in their own right, and the opposite is true here. We see their mistakes and how they weigh on their consciences. We see them drop their pretenses, joke, goof around and be a bit irreverent. They are huge screw-ups, and a few of them are not particularly good people at first, but they believably connect over shared pain and experiences. They’re less role models and more conceivably flawed outcasts who try to course-correct their lives, with some help from a giant floating head.
That might be all fine and well, of course, but this does come at the expense of the the actual Rangers in action, which only lasts about 23 minutes (yes, I timed it), and is proportionally much smaller than the rest of the two-hour running time. They go to great lengths to tie the morphing to the character development and the sense that they have to earn their Ranger suits. But with this being a superhero movie, of sorts, it still means seeing less set-pieces than you’d like.
In terms of differences to the show, there were many I found acceptable and frankly incidental in the long term, and a few I didn’t care much for. The use of the Zeo Crystal is actually quite clever, fitting with the overall purpose of the crystal from the show. I was fine with the overhauled look for the Command Center, Zordon and Alpha 5, with Zordon still retaining his overall “giant-head” appearance in the spirit of Wizard of Oz. Rita is certainly much more terrifying and psychotic here, and her green armour lends credence to her original position as the Green Ranger. Goldar is pretty much a mindless automaton, like the new Putties, rather than being an intimidating or entertaining minion with personality. Despite the implied “alien technology” behind them, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the DinoZords apart if I wasn’t already a fan of the show, and they could have looked a little more “traditional.” Lastly, the Megazord still looks like a Bayformer, and Pacific Rim did the blocky, armour-plated finish better. Also Bulk and Skull would not have fit in this new series at all, so their exclusion isn’t such a bad thing!
Overall, Power Rangers isn’t a movie for everyone. It is perfectly accessible to new (young) fans, but older fans will either accept the variety of changes or be completely thrown off by them. It didn’t make me feel bad for being a fan of the franchise, and it didn’t feel like it was embarrassed to be a Power Rangers movie. Perhaps they will do a sequel, and I’m reasonably curious to see how that goes, but for pure entertainment (and nostalgia), my enjoyment for Mighty Morphin’ remains as high as it ever was.