With its cheesy effects, formulaic storytelling, and barely coherent mythos, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers may have seemed a perfectly disposable trifle when it premiered in the early 1990s. But creators Haim Saban and Shuki Levy’s Americanized tokusatsu, which lifts its fights scenes directly from the Japanese series Super Sentai, has persisted for nearly a quarter of a century by shamelessly pandering to the tastes of its young target audience. An artless fusion of not-so-disparate genres—sci-fi, superhero, kaiju, martial arts, and more—that suggests Transformers by way of Saved by the Bell, the show is above all else a half-hour toy commercial.
Power Rangers, director Dean Israelite’s franchise-establishing reboot (five more films are already planned), preserves these elements and keeps the same basic template as the original: Five high schoolers are summoned by a giant talking head named Zordon (voiced here by Bryan Cranston) and a fey, C-3PO-like robot (Bill Hader) to battle the evil space witch Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). They morph into colorful suits to fight bizarre monsters with karate, weapons, and giant robotic dinosaur cars that interlock to form a massive Optimus Prime-like battlebot. The new film wisely jettisons the queasy racial color-coding of the original series (in which an African-American boy was the “Black” Ranger, and an Asian-American girl was the “Yellow” one) while upping the diversity quotient with an autistic ranger and one who identifies as lesbian, though it still manages to position the white male jock (Dacre Montgomery) as the leader of the group.
The film reconfigures the basic elements of the series into a Marvel-style superhero origin story, complete with shiny metallic suits (replacing the spandex of the original) and an effects-laden finale—which, as in your average Marvel movie, is a busy hodgepodge of explosions and bloodless carnage. Israelite gets some mileage out of the quintet’s pure excitement in discovering their powers as they hop over gorges and fling notes to each other in class with laser-like precision, and the cast mostly strikes the right balance between campiness and conviction, with Banks’s archly grotesque turn as Rita and RJ Cyler’s lovably dorky Billy being particular standouts.
In an effort to bring a level of maturity to a fundamentally kid-friendly property, though, the film gets bogged down in some angsty teenage melodrama involving trust, friendship, sexting, and parents. For a decent chunk of its running time, this Power Rangers suggests a windy group therapy session redolent of John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (three of the characters even get to share Saturday detention). But this attempt to inject a sense of pathos into the film is ruined by the screenplay’s inability to deepen any of the characters beyond broad stereotypes.
While never quite attempting the exaggerated grimness of Joseph Kahn’s über-gritty faux-reboot Power/Rangers, Israelite does affect a sense of moody gravitas with a muted color palette, some dutch angles, and even a visual allusion to Christ. But the hoped-for solemnity is consistently undermined both by the inherent goofiness of the material and a comically prominent Krispy Kreme product placement. The original series, while certainly no unimpeachable classic of action filmmaking, at least embraced its own ridiculousness, particularly in its almost surreal assortment of high-concept monsters. Power Rangers, on the other hand, is so concerned with launching a mature teen-targeted franchise that it often forgets to have some fun.