When you pit dinosaur robots against a massive monster made out of gold, you’re better off not taking yourself too seriously. Thankfully, for the most part, the new Power Rangers movie from Saban and Lionsgate embraces its sillier side while still delivering a surprisingly grounded story, gold-eating space witch and all.
What if The Breakfast Club had a lot more on their plates than figuring each other out and writing that essay for Assistant Principal Vernon? That’s the type of approach taken in the new Power Rangers movie, as a group of outcasts in detention band together to form the titular team after finding some glowing, otherworldly goodies at the local mine. And similar to John Hughes’ beloved characters, these teens are much deeper and complex than the stereotypical labels society has placed on them.
The film delivers refreshing new takes on the characters from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series. Long before the alien Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and his talking robot, Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader, whose every line is comedic gold), entered their lives, these kids were already coping with all-too-real elements of life—death in the family, autism, sexual discrimination, suffocating guilt, identity crisis—that have forced them to grow up quickly. The home lives of the Rangers is one of the few elements of the movie taken seriously, acting as a great counterbalance to the zany intergalactic action led by the one and only Rita Repulsa.
The space witch’s insane laughter might have freaked you out in the original series, but Elizabeth Banks and director Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) take Rita to dark new depths here. In her first few appearances in the film, Rita almost transforms Power Rangers into a horror movie. Before her health is fully restored, her scarred features fill the screen with wide-eyed horror in creepy close-ups as she searches for gold everywhere—even in people’s mouths—to build her beloved monster Goldar. Banks is given free reign to go delightfully over-the-top with her performance as Rita, hissing her dialogue with snake-like venom and soaking up the screen with a bizarre charm that’s oddly funny, but always unsettling. Banks brings out the best in the Rita fans know and love from the TV series, while still putting her own stamp on the scene-stealing sorceress.
Although Rita may translate well from the small to the big screen, the martial arts that made the show so fun to watch are unfortunately lacking in this adaptation. Like many kids in the ’90s, my sister and I grew up watching the Power Rangers take on endless waves of Putties in hand-to-hand combat scenes (many of which were taken from Japan’s Super Sentai series) that featured powerful punches, cool kicks, and a fluid fight choreography that surely sparked our early interest in Tae Kwon Do.
While the new film packs a punch with some ridiculously fun mega-scale action between the Zords (the Rangers’ robots) and Goldar that captures the spirit of the original series (and Pacific Rim, for that matter), the more practical on-foot fighting is largely absent. Even when the Rangers do take on Rita’s henchmen in hand-to-hand combat, the showdowns suffer from the blocky CG structures of the Putties, as the Rangers basically go up against clumps of rocks in one-sided battles that lack the fun fight choreography I was craving.
That said, seeing the Zords in action brought back sweet Saturday morning memories from my childhood (I could practically taste the Captain Crunch), and my grin grew to Joker-esque width when they actually used the Power Rangers theme song as the team galloped into action for the climactic battle. Those types of nods to the source material should be much appreciated by longtime Power Rangers fans that flock to the theaters (although it admittedly might leave newcomers to the franchise a bit baffled). Despite the added emotional weight and modern-day relevancy, it’s clear that Israelite and company never forget where these iconic characters came from, even if they do take a bit too long to get them into morphin’ mode.
Viewers expecting a lot of screen time for the Power Rangers armor may be disappointed that it takes longer than expected to see these characters in their full, suited-up glory, especially since we have to endure a few too many preachy pep talks along the way. This is an origin story, though, and while it spends a little too much time in pre-morphin’ territory, it’s nice to see that Israelite cares enough about the characters to really establish both their personalities (RJ Cyler in particular is a standout as the fast-talking, over-thinking Blue Ranger Billy) and their friendship as a group before they are able to activate their armor.
It may not be summer blockbuster season yet, but Power Rangers would certainly fit right in as a great popcorn movie that blends its big-budget action with grounded main characters who still know how to have fun with the more over-the-top aspects of the plot. You’re more likely to enjoy Power Rangers if you’re familiar with its Mighty Morphin source material (or the story structure from any of the franchise’s many installments), but memorable moments such as Rita eating a gold necklace or a life-or-death battle to protect the local Krispy Kreme may be bizarre enough to even cater to the casual fan who didn’t grow up wanting to fly a pterodactyl Dinozord.
Movie Score: 3.5/5