24 years ago, Saban Entertainment acquired the rights to footage from a Japanese kids TV show called Super Sentai and created the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers – a series in which 5 teenagers acquire incredible powers and abilities in order to defend the Earth from the forces of evil, making use of martial arts skills, fantastic weapons and giant fighting machines called Zords. Each new series of the Power Rangers adventures blends action from Japanese shows with originally-created content for Western audiences. The show was an instant success, and continued to run through various iterations to this day; including the release of a pair of accompanying feature films; the first and most famous being Power Rangers: The Movie in 1995; and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie in 1997. While they featured the casts of each show at the time; they featured completely original storylines and used no footage from Japanese sources.
The third feature film takes a step away from the series and from the familiar format of the shows; as well as taking us back to the start of the Power Rangers story. At fear of tarnishing the film with a negative brush before we get into it, this is very much a reboot – re-establishing the story of the original Ranger team with a heavy update of story, style and tone for 21st century audiences. However, this is not something to be baulked at straight away; though it does present as many positives as it does negatives.
A lot has happened in the landscape of entertainment in the last 25 years, and that is reflected both by the direction of Dean Israelite (Project Alamnac), and from the screenplay by John Gatins (Real Steel). The recreation of a movie franchise in the modern world has to take into account series like Michael Bay’s Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots, the flourishing Marvel Cinematic Universe, the success of sequels like Jurassic World and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens; and the successful Star Trek reboot series from J.J. Abrams. The effect of these films and the shift they have had over big-budget, teen-friendly action franchises is a darker take on the Power Rangers’ story.
The story still takes place in Angel Grove, and follows the stories of five teenagers who find 5 mysterious coins and develop superhuman abilities, coming together to form the superhero team known as the Power Rangers. Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery, Stranger Things), Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott, Terra Nova), Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler, Me, Early & The Dying Girl), Zach Taylor (Ludi Lin, Marco Polo) and Trini Kwan (Becky G, Empire) are our heroes; who first find the Power Coins before finding the secret alien spaceship that is home to the mysterious Zordon (Brian Cranston, Breaking Bad) and his robot assistant Alpha 5 (Bill Hader, Trainwreck) and beginning the training needed to defeat Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks, The Lego Movie) and her forces of evil.
Before we get any further into it, I feel it’s important that I tell you all that I’ve been watching the original Power Rangers series on Netflix. I also haven’t just watched a few episodes; right now, I’m about halfway through season 3, and each season has around 50 episodes. I am in deep here, people. The reason why I’m telling you this is because I have a very recent memory of what it’s like to watch that show; and the comparison between the original series and the movie is fresh.
Trust me when I say this – they’ve changed the right things.
The differences in tone are clear to see from the outset. The original Power Rangers were 5 honest, loyal and friendly teenagers who were already friends; hand-picked by Zordon to take on the responsibility of defending the planet. The new Power Rangers are all troubled teens with their own personal, distinct issues; all of whom barely know each other. In fact, some of them meet properly for the first time in detention; a setting which allows their distinct characters a believable arena for them to cross paths for the first time. These personal problems and struggles set each character up as a unique individual and establish a variety of connections with their intended audience; picking up on common issues which the youth of today regularly come across and revealing each one in time as the film progresses, serving both to flesh out each character in a manageable time-frame and to provide more reasons for the group to come together. This reinvention of their personal traits also casts them more plainly as underdogs, stumbling upon a power and a responsibility that they aren’t prepared for; quietly mirroring similar situations from the likes of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, and other modern superhero outings.
The parallels with Raimi’s web-head don’t end there. The original Spiderman film is often praised for its balance of drama and action with comedy; and comedy is something Power Rangers does very well, often centred on Billy. This is an important reinvention for Billy for two reasons; firstly, the original Blue Ranger was an irritating know-it-all, who spoke in unnecessarily over-the-top “intellectual language”; a trait which has been dropped entirely. Instead, Billy is now openly and identifiably autistic (the moment he explains it to Jason is a key moment in their developing friendship). Importantly, the humour he provides to the story isn’t mocking that condition, but celebrating it; as he highlights the flaws in the actions and discourse of his companions around him. His acceptance of and by his peers is a key thread of the film, and a message which every young person living on the spectrum could potentially benefit from seeing. Acceptance is a key theme of the entire film; as the 5 rangers work to accept each other and themselves.
While the main bulk of the story of the new Power Rangers works to set the team up, the action side is well paced, even from the start. The Rangers get themselves into various scrapes before they even find the Power Coins; but once they have them, things move to another level. Israelite takes care to establish that these teens now have verifiable superpowers; taking advantage of modern special effects technology in a way that the original series could not. The Rangers are now naturally stronger and faster – demonstrated in another Raimi-esque sequence, which again is not unwelcome – and long before they morph for the first time, they pull off great athletic feats. This is further highlighted by a step away from the original abilities of each teen. Where the original Rangers were all shown to be skilled martial artists before acquiring their powers; these five are not demonstrated to have the same skills; instead, they are taught how to fight from the ground up as the story progresses; another narrative device which is well used as the team comes together. There are other subtle changes to stories, backgrounds and scenarios – as well as some aspects taken from later Power Rangers seasons – that keep the overall story fresh and unique; without disregarding the basic constructs of the Rangers universe entirely.
In terms of design, Israelite has taken steps to modernize every aspect of character design across the board. The Ranger suits are now much more identifiable as armour, and Alpha 5 and the Zords are much more futuristic in tone. It is here, for me, that the main issues come. The Ranger suits look like they could’ve been taken straight out of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armour workshop, and the Zords look a little too much like Michael Bay’s Transformers; indeed, the Red Ranger’s Tyrannosaurus Zord could just as easily have been Grimlock with a shiny new coat of paint. While the decision to update the look and feel of these futuristic warriors and their vehicles was absolutely the right one – after all, the original Zords were literally the toys – the designs don’t stand out from the slew of monsters and machines which we see bombarding our screens in every summer blockbuster. The characterization of her army has also had an overhaul; no more men in grey suits flailing at random; but hulking masses of dirt and stone that present a much more viable threat to the new Rangers. While this is certainly much better than the original Putties; they again lack a sense of character in the grander scope of modern cinema.
Two redesigns which are very effective are Rita and Zordon. Rita’s entire character has had a huge overhaul; no longer is she the campy, over-the-top and highly over-dressed villain in the moon base. Instead, she’s right in the centre of the action; and Banks’ characterization gives her a dark and incredibly threatening demeanour, which is enhanced by the sharp, angular costume. The advances in CGI have allowed for Zordon to become much more dynamic; no longer just a strange, blue head trapped in a weird jar but a functioning consciousness trapped in a futuristic wall. Cranston takes the role and runs with it; taking what was very-much a one-dimensional character and adding a considerable amount of depth. He’s well supported by Hader’s Alpha 5; who adds another dimension of levity to the film; particularly while helping the team in their training. Alpha’s physical, CGI re-design also allows the character to be more dynamic physically, allowing for much better use of him during his scenes.
These three performances are strong; and they support some excellent turns from the Rangers. Saban’s decision to use five relatively fresh faces as their stars was a solid decision; all five put in strong turns in their first starring roles. Montgomery and Cyler, in particular, had incredible on-screen chemistry together and provide a number of the films’ most entertaining moments and Montgomery shines as the leader of the group; but there were plenty of great moments provided by Scott, Lin and Becky G as well. All five get ample time on screen to demonstrate their skills, both in ensemble moments and solo scenes, and have established the basis of what could be a reasonable franchise.
If you come into this film expecting to relive the original series, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you’re looking for an intelligent and well-thought action film with strong characters and a heap of positive messages, you could do much worse than checking out Power Rangers. After all… it’s morphin’ time.