If you were a child of the 90s, you are undoubtedly familiar with the Power Rangers franchise. In 1993, America was treated to a hybridization of your standard Saved by the Bell-esque style sitcom with one of Japan’s most popular and long running kids’ franchises, Super Sentai. This unusual blend of colorful spandex, rubber monster costumes and simple 90s morality plays exploded the cultural zeitgeist. And while it’s insane popularity only lasted a couple of years, the show has become a mainstay of children’s television that is still running strong almost 25 years later. Now, in an effort to re-energize the franchise, Saban and Lionsgate have rebooted the series as a feature film, reimagining the original cast of characters and giving the whole concept a facelift. It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure, but the question remains, can this movie update the Power Rangers in a meaningful way while still holding on to the spirit that made the original show something special 25 years ago?
Surprisingly, yeah. It kind of does.
There is something I need to get out-of-the-way before I dive in. I was exactly the right age when Power Rangers debuted to be sucked into the insane wormhole of Power Rangers fandom. My parents can certainly attest to that. While growing up, I did leave Power Rangers behind somewhat, but it was always in my periphery, and I eventually revisited the series as an adult and dived into the sprawling history of the show and it’s Japanese counterpart. Suffice to say, I’m a huge fan, and my ultimate opinion of the movie takes that into account. I say all of that to say that being a Power Rangers fan certainly helps when it comes to enjoying this movie, and you’ll certainly find a fun amount of nods and easter eggs to the series over the course of the film (I’m talking some deep cut references even), but you don’t NEED to be a fan to enjoy this movie. There is plenty there to like for fans of superhero movies or even your classic coming of age tales. But being a fan or having a sense of nostalgia for the franchise certainly helps.
The movie takes place in the fishing town of Angel Grove, and focuses on 5 teenagers who discover special coins that greatly enhance their strength, speed and agility. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is a disgraced football player, Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is a cheerleader on the outs with her clique, Billy (RJ Cyler) is an awkward nerd who falls somewhere near the Asperger side of the autism spectrum, Trini (Becky G) is a young woman who purposely alienates herself from her peers and family, and Zack (Ludi Lin) is a wild man who likes taking risks and jumping in head first. After the fateful encounter that introduced them to their special coins, they find themselves caught up in the machinations of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a disembodied head on a wall, and Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), a quirky alien robot, with the goal of saving the world from the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), who aims to claim an ancient power so she can rule the universe.
If that sounds kind of cheesy, it’s because it is. This movie is obviously not a masterpiece of storytelling, and it wears its inspirations on it’s sleeve, but there is an element of self-awareness that keeps it from being too over the top. You’ll find that Power Rangers borrows quite a bit conceptually from films that have come before. I’m sure you’ll hear other reviews mentioning films like Breakfast Club, Chronicle, and to a lesser extent Transformers, but I found that is used those elements effectively, in a way that builds the movie up as opposed to detracts from it. And while I’m not a fan of the Transformers film franchise, when it comes to presenting a similar style giant robot fight, I felt that Power Rangers actually presented those similar elements in a less cluttered, easier to view way. It helps that the giant robot portion of the movie isn’t a significant part of the runtime. That said, the tone of the movie never moves too far away from what you would recognize as the Power Rangers. You are still watching a movie about a bunch of teenagers fighting an evil space witch and a giant monster. It’s a concept that invites humor and campiness, but again, the movie doesn’t try to shy away from that. Instead, it aims to embrace that aspect of its history while doing a decent enough job of making it feel organic to the goings on of the movie. The camp never feels out-of-place. Which is quite a feat considering the serious, grounded take on the personalities of the movie’s 5 leads.
Indeed, it’s the chemistry between the 5 main characters that gives this movie it’s legs. Watching these actors interact is a joy. While Jason, Kimberly, and Billy have the meatier, more developed parts, all 5 of them get moments to shine, and develop clear, cohesive arcs, which is more than you might expect considering the subject matter. I want to make special note of RJ Cyler as Billy. He is given the most to do in terms of characterization, having to affect the mannerisms and body language of a young man who just crosses into the autism spectrum, and he plays it well with emotional honesty. But Power Rangers, at it’s heart, has always been about the power of friendship and teamwork. And I’m not gonna lie, I’m a REAL sucker for a good story about friendship. If it’s done well, almost nothing is as personally affecting to me than a solid friendship story. And this movie does that REALLY well. Again, I’m gonna throw around the word “chemistry”. Whatever stars had to align for them to find a group of young people who interact so well together, it really pays off as the saving grace of the movie. Even when the film slows down in the second act, the fact that you like these characters and want them to succeed keeps the pace from ever grinding to a halt. It may not ever reach as far as John Hughes did when he wrote the Breakfast Club, in terms of bringing together a group of kids from different walks of life, but I still appreciate that their friendship felt real and developed. Watching these characters build their budding team never feels forced, and indeed lends this movie it’s sense of reality and weight when things start getting fantastical.
And things do get fantastical, especially when Zordon, Alpha 5, and Rita are in the picture. Bryan Cranston is well cast as the floating head mentor of the team, Zordon. I mean, let’s be real here, it’s a tough job to play an alien head on a wall and be taken seriously as wise and substantial, so I can’t think of a better actor to lend Zordon the gravitas necessary to make the character viable in a more serious Power Rangers film than Bryan Cranston. Bill Hader as Alpha 5 serves as little more than comic relief, but Bill Hader does that better than just about anyone working in film today. Alpha was often considered an annoying exposition machine in the original television show, so it’s nice to see his translation in this new version come out so well. And finally, Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa is….something. I feel like you’re either going to love her or hate her, depending on whether or not you really embrace the campier aspects of the film. When you hear the term “chewing scenery”, I can’t think of a more appropriate example than Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I can’t argue with that choice, as Rita is written as irredeemably evil. With Rita so lacking in dimension, I can understand that giving her the air of an 80’s horror movie villain helped to give much-needed substance for the character. As such, the scenes that feature her early on, tended to feel a bit tonally out-of-place, which really leads into my only real gripe with the movie.
Listen, nitpicking movies is easy, and a movie based on a 90s kids show is doubly so. My stance calling out those nitpicks generally depends on whether the movie in question is solid enough to keep those little stumbles from breaking the immersion or the pacing. And this movie makes a lot of solid choices that make the nitpicks forgivable, but at the same time, this movie also far from a perfect film. And there are some things that are important to note when determining the overall quality of the film. For instance, the tone of this movie can be pretty jumpy. Early scenes featuring Rita feel like light horror, and that can clash with the scenes of the Rangers bonding and training. On top of that, the second act of the movie slows down pretty heavily. That wouldn’t stick out so much if action portions of the movie were somewhat distributed throughout the course of the film, but almost all of it is saved for the third act. It’s a pretty sharp contrast with the first act, which feels almost like a different movie. None of it breaks the film, thankfully, because as I’ve said before, the strength of the characters elevates the lulls in tone and pacing. And when the film finally dives into the action, it’s super fun. To see the Rangers fight in their costumes, and call upon their Zords is gratifying, and well executed. It might be especially poignant for fans of the franchise, but I think anyone who enjoys a good superhero fight will enjoy the last act of the movie.
If I’m being honest, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this movie going in. I was hoping that I would enjoy it, but I had some serious reservations. To know that I liked it as much as I did, that I liked the choices they made in updating the mythology of the series while keeping intact the heart and soul of the original show is immensely gratifying. For the first real blockbuster of the season, I think Power Rangers is a solid start, and an entertaining time out at the movies. I look forward to seeing future installments in the franchise.
Barry is a freelance artist and writer. Check out his webcomic Mind the Exit!