Flawed but charming "Power Rangers" morphs successfully onto the silver screen
In which it's both your father's and not your father's Power Rangers.
The original Power Rangers show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (on which this new 2017 film version is based - probably because “Jason” “Kimberly” “Billy” “Zack” and “Trini” are the names that'll ensnare the nostalgic 20 somethings) was the salted discards of American and Japanese pop culture mashed together with a lousy budget and lousier craftsmanship to create something palatable for undemanding 10 year olds. The colour-coded Power Rangers were a marketer's wet dream that also evoked the sincere innocence of a little boy's mind, ie, Red is the leader and Pink and Yellow are the girls. Together, these energetic action figures battle the evil space witch Rita Repulsa and take guidance from a giant floating head in a tube named Zordon. The passage of time has granted the series a wonky but undeniable charm; maybe it's that rockin' theme song, maybe it's the overwhelming 90-ness of it. Regardless, the show proved to be so popular that the Power Rangers are still thriving on the small screen.
But there are only a couple of ways to do a big-budget Power Rangers: Either a delicious send-up of the campy absurdity of the show ala the recent 21 Jump Street, or an electrified reinvention that a teenager or an adult wouldn't be embarrassed to see, ala Star Trek (2009). Power Rangers tries to be both of those things, and it kind of works - and kind of doesn't. To wit, when the Teenagers with Attitudes™ are finally in their colourful suits and fighting big ol' monsters and alien witch Rita Repulsa (an unhinged Elizabeth Banks seemingly spawned from the swamp of industrial goth metal), you'd swear you were hallucinating if you didn't know any better - it's red meat for the adults who are nostalgic for old school Power Rangers. But for that teenager who couldn't care less about some old show from like a decade before they were born but is really into this grounded and relatively introspective iteration, it's kind of a bummer of a finale: the tonal dissonance, which is constantly lurking around the edges of its two-hour something run-time, is unleashed in its final half hour. Ultimately, I couldn't tell you who this movie is for if you put a gun to my head. And yet, it works, because even when the campiness kicks in *hard* and the nostalgia is rammed down your salt and sugar coated gullet, it's not without its charms and poignant moments, one of which is surprisingly similar to the end of Toy Story 3.
In Power Rangers, the new iterations of Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Zack, and Trini get angsty backstories (not to mention actual personalities – whaaaat?) in addition to their colours. Jason (Dacre Montgomery, the Red Ranger) is the star Quarterback who's always disappointing his dad. Kimberly (Naomi Scott, the Pink Ranger) is a former mean girl. Billy (RJ Cyler, the Blue Ranger) is on the spectrum and an easy target for bullies. Zack (Ludi Lin, the Black Ranger) is the antsy rebel, but he's got a heart of gold because he looks after his sick mother. And Trini (Becky G, the Yellow Ranger) is the ignored one, which is kind of sad because the movie ignores her too. Fate, or more accurately a plot contrivance, leads them to some ancient artifacts at the local quarry (much like the original show, this movie has an affinity for the local quarry) that grants them superhuman abilities. Naturally, that also leads them to an ancient alien spaceship which houses OG Red Ranger Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Bill Hader). The new Rangers are tasked with what Zordon failed to do: kill Rita Repulsa before she harnesses some ancient McGuffin (Zeo Crystals) that'll give her the power to reshape the universe as she sees fit.
Unsurprisingly, the premise is generic. But what is surprising is how engaging these new Rangers are and the sheer amount of real estate devoted to fleshing out the heroes. Well, most of the heroes. They go through the predictable origin story beats of “What?! I can't do this! We can do this!” but the actors fully inhabit their thinly written parts with such sincerity that by the time they are in the Power Ranger suits, you can't help but feel that something crucial has been abandoned even as we've finally arrived at what we paid to watch. I yearned for them to ditch their newly acquired shiny costumes and to go back to the camp fire and just talk to each other, a scene which is the beating heart of this film.
Y'see, in order for them to “morph” into their armour the teenagers with attitude™ have got to form some emotional and mental connection with each other. And by giving each of the teenagers a problem that insulates them from everyone else, with the added thing of teenagers being pretty self-centred too, the emotional crux of the film is each of them learning that "It's Not Just About You™ ". Not the deepest of messages, but I'll take that over empty fury and pandering spectacle any day of the week. I'll take a movie that is genuinely interested in its characters and not as much in whatever an army of computer technicians can conjure. Call this one a flawed but good start.