Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club Power Rangers
by Thom Yee
When it comes to the narrow windows of time that separate our personal childhood fascinations from the general nostalgia that we just can’t stand, I fell just outside of the right age to be into the Power Rangers. I was in upper elementary school, grades 4 through 6, when the morphenomenal teen team first debuted and gained prominence, just a little too mature to fully immerse in their world, but still surrounded by the property’s deluge of television episodes, toys, and commercials. If I’m being honest, there was a part of me that envied the younger kids at my school who were at just the right age for the Power Rangers and could play with the Japanese-looking robots that combined together to form even bigger robots, but at that point I mostly had my sights set firmly on one other goal: Toughening up so that I wouldn’t be eaten alive in junior high. In my case, that meant leaving behind such juvenilia, picking up at least one sport to be good at, and pretending to be into gangsta rap. But, as long as we’re being so honest with each other here, I should probably go ahead and admit something else to you: I still watched Power Rangers sometimes.
As a television series, Power Rangers focused on the same sort of life lessons that most good-guys-beat-up-bad-guys shows leaned into, but unlike its TV show/toys/commercials forebears like the Transformers or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was fairly obvious, even to many of the young children who it was aimed at, that these new heroes… well, there was just something a bit off. With all of them. All five (and later six) of these kids, from vastly different ethnicitic backgrounds and social stratas, were best friends? All of them, despite being teenagers, were squeaky-clean, upright citizens and leaders in their communities? They were all already gymnastically inclined martial arts experts? They never strayed from wearing one particular colour of clothing that just happened to match their eventual Ranger identities? As Power Rangers, they fought battles of mass, skyscraper-destroying public destruction but Angel Grove always seemed to be fine, they announced everything they were about to do with strange, repeated chants and phrases and clearly rehearsed choreography, they engaged in highly theatrical battles that always followed the same pattern of escalation. And, worst of all, they all, everyone on the show, made the dumbest, lamest jokes in the world. It was like the most upward-looking, least self-aware, and deliberately self-denying adventure show from the ‘50s had a love child with the weird super science fiction of an entirely different country.
But, while it’s extremely easy to pick apart the old Power Rangers for its eccentricities (that’s pretty much what I just did), there was something to it that made it hard to fully resist. True, it was corny and hokey and cheesy and frequently unbearable, but there was still just the barest kernel of interesting things going on in and around the show, whether it was the foreign-looking footage that never quite meshed with the other parts of the show shot with the American cast or the prospect of a traitor Ranger who messed everything up for our heroes, things that made it strangely compelling and sort of undeniable, and I’m willing to bet that, if you were anywhere in the range of five to 25 years old when the show was at its peak, you probably watched a few of them too.
What’s it about?
When five different, disparate teenagers with attitude discover five different, mysterious coins buried in a nearby mine, they each gain incredible powers and learn the truth of the universe… uh, that there are bad people in it? Like, freaky-looking, superpowered alien bad people? And it’s their job to put aside their differences, come together as a team, and beat those bad people up.
I think by now we’ve all realized that part of the reason the original Power Rangers show often felt so off kilter was because most of the action footage was derived from an entirely different series of shows, the Japanese Super Sentai, and knowing that goes a long way in explaining why it was so weird. And why the original Trini’s Yellow Ranger suit didn’t have a skirt like Kimberly’s Pink Ranger suit (the Yellow Ranger was a guy in Super Sentai). It’s kind of funny how learning that sort of explains everything, like a big “OOOOoohhhh” and it all falls into place and nothing about Power Rangers feels weird anymore. Suddenly all the posing and declarations and theatrics and choreography makes sense, none of the city-destroying exploits seem out of place, and of course giant monsters are everywhere. Why wouldn’t they be everywhere? Why wouldn’t the city constantly be in peril? It’s Japanese! Frankly it would be weird if five robots didn’t combine into one big robot!
In terms of overall franchise status, Power Rangers may never have gone completely away (with new installments of the show still being produced), but if there was one single event I feel we can point to that really sparked enthusiasm around a full-on revival, I would say it was the Power/Rangers short from producer Adi Shankar that was released in 2015 on YouTube.
Shankar’s Power/Rangers had the kind of shocking brutality and harsh cynicism that both clashed heavily with the original material while also feeling somehow right, and combined with its use of recognizable Hollywood actors and a storyline informed by the kind of fanfic-type thoughts we’ve all imagined with the characters, it was a stunning piece that left many of us wanting more. Even though the producers at Saban would never have released a new Power Rangers movie in the same brutal vein, Power/Rangers at least got us talking about the Power Rangers again, and now that Saban’s Power Rangers has finally been released here in 2017, I can honestly say I was just as shocked by the official movie as I was by Shankar’s unofficial “Bootleg” version.
Is it any good?
I feel like I’m about to say a bunch of unbelievable things here, so if you’re the excitable type, brace yourself and hold on to your wigs and keys.
Holy sh*t, Power Rangers was good. Like crazy good, especially if you’re like me and you were going in with lowered expectations because of its Rotten Tomatoes score, and especially if you’re like me and you weren’t already a fan of the franchise. I would go as far as saying that, right now, it’s my third favourite movie of the year. I would go as far as saying that, right now, I think it’s going to make it into our Top 10 movies of 2017. I would go as far as saying that I liked it more than Logan. Maybe a lot more. But I don’t think it’s that great as a POWER RANGERS movie. We’ll get into that in a bit.
Before seeing Power Rangers, I was actually feeling very ambivalent about the whole thing, and I was switching back and forth between seeing it for review this week or just having another skip week because there was nothing coming out that I wanted to see. The one thing that eventually made it a quick and easy decision, however, is when I remembered that Bryan Cranston, one of my favourite actors of all time, would be playing Zordon. As the mentor of the Power Rangers, Cranston doesn’t get a lot of onscreen time, but his mere presence, even as a disembodied head, brings a certain level of legitimacy to the movie as a whole that never really existed in the original kids’ show. Surprisingly enough, every one of the other main roles, from Red Ranger Jason all the way to Elizabeth Banks’ Rita Repulsa is also very well realized. The cast is really the secret weapon of this version of the Power Rangers, as I believed in every one of them and how their experiences brought them to this point. The core three rangers, Red Ranger Jason, Pink Ranger Kimberly, and Blue Ranger Billy all, more or less, play the same types as their predecessors — jock, popular girl, and science nerd respectively — but now there’s an actual distance between the characters. They don’t all belong together or already know each other well, they’re from different social circles and they’re only initially brought together in detention (in a scene that clearly and overtly recalls The Breakfast Club thile still honouring it) and when they first come together in finding the mysterious coins that would make them Power Rangers (along with Yellow Ranger Trini, the new girl, and Black Ranger Zack, the outsider), it’s a much more believable situation and under much more exciting circumstances than the original show ever gave us.
It’s perhaps most fair to evaluate this 2017 Power Rangers as its own piece rather than in direct comparison to its predecessors, but as I watched the movie I found that difficult to do, but for the best possible reason: It’s better in every way. The new Power Rangers up its game by leaps and bounds, whether it’s characters, motivations, the mythology, or having an answer for all of those things that never made sense before. Jason is still the jock, but he’s learned to resent what being the jock has forced him to be in this small town. Kimberly worries that being popular has made her someone she doesn’t want to be. Billy’s scientific acumen comes as a result of being on the autistic spectrum, but it’s never dwelled on so much as it just is who he is and it might actually give him an advantage in becoming a Ranger. Zack has abandonment issues and Trini never felt like she fit in, and it’s all enough to make you actually care about these people and their journey, and there’s even a moment in the movie where Zordon sacrifices something of his own in order to make sure the Rangers will succeed. I’m not saying any of this is the deepest storytelling or high art, but along with how good these young actors are and how well they carry their parts, I felt what they felt and I was invested in their success. And all those smaller questions you used to have like where their uniforms came from (thin air?) or where their zords came from (from some random cloudy area?0 or whether or not they had powers outside of their armour or what their armour really did for them are answered here and it’s all somewhat sensible. It’s funny too, and I would put most of the movie’s humour on par with some of the better Marvel movies.
In Power Rangers we really get a winning little teen drama with five young leads who fully embody their characters and their individual and group struggles, and for two-thirds of the movie, everything is surprisingly compelling and well balanced. So it’s just too bad the way it ends. Once our heroes finally overcome their differences and learn to assemble as a team, the movie suddenly shifts into a hyper-condensed state of fairly low-brow action that proceeds in mostly the way you’re probably expecting if you’ve been natural skeptical of this new Power Rangers movie. None of it looks very good, very little of it is very exciting, it’s rushed and anti-climactic, and even the combined Megazord robot final form is pretty boring to look at. Its concluding third act is a tonal shift that, frankly, fails the much more nuanced storytelling that preceeded it, and overall it lets the movie down much more than I would have liked.
So should I see it?
When viewed from a high enough point, movies like Power Rangers go back to the origin of story and why the things we first had attachments to, no matter how outwardly silly and unrealistic, still mattered. Sometimes I even think we, as a society, are lucky that, as crassly commercial and overtly simplistic as they could be, these types of shows taught us about important things like right and wrong, teamwork and respecting each other, and at least tried to breed within us a deep desire to do the right thing, because the real world all too often fails to do so. This 2017 Power Rangers does an unexpectedly great job of selling those themes. The producers of Saban’s Power Rangers put together a very strong cast with a very serviceable script, and, for the most part, I was honestly blown away with how good it was. I’m not a pre-existing fan, I was feeling no nostalgia about the property, and I have far more invested in other entertainment properties from the past, but I would recommend that anyone with even a mild interest in the movie should go and see it. It’s believable, genuine, and heartfelt in a way I never thought it would be, it celebrates its inspirations while still taking almost all of the necessary steps to move beyond them, it’s funny, it moves at a brisk but thoughtful pace, and, if this first movie is any indication of where the series is going, I’ll absolutely be there for the sequels.
Hopefully next time they can just get the actual Power Rangers parts right.
Thom’s Power Rangers final score
On the Edge
- Everybody keeps making a big deal of the Krispy Kreme sponsorship thing, but it was only conspicuous, not absolutely ridiculous.
- It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a main character in a movie sound convincing while speaking Mandarin.
- I heard a bunch of kids laughing when Trini’s mom yelled at her to pee in that cup after telling her mom a crazy story, and as much sense as that joke makes from an adult perspective, I find it endlessly more funny to think about how those kids probably just thought her mom wanted her to pee in a cup for no apparent reason.
- Yes, yes, I know “juvenilia” means works produced by a young person rather than for a young audience, but I’m still using it in the latter sense because it sounds right.
- And in case you’re wondering, no, that 4 star/heart review is not an April Fool’s joke.