How do you reboot the action-packed but definitively hokey “Power Rangers” for a new era? That was the challenge posed to director Dean Israelite as he prepped a movie revamp of the original 1993 series. Of course, you keep the colorful suits so good for toy sales. But maybe don’t put the Asian-American Ranger in yellow, or the African-American one in black. Actually, let’s tone down the kids wearing their armor colors in casual wear altogether.
Naturally, you keep the Zords for a town-rattling climax of massive monster versus battle bots. Preserve the names of the characters, but upgrade and shake up wherever possible, like pulling in Bill Hader to voice the snarky robot sensei Alpha 5. Then slather on some pathos to cut through the corniness a blue-armored teen karate kicking a rock monster. It might be inelegant, but it’s nonetheless a solid equation to appease the nostalgic a new generation of fans.
Set in the small, coastal-yet-mountainous town of Angel Grove, “Power Rangers” follows five misfit teens who fatefully cross paths in a collapsing gold mine, where they discover the colorful coins that will make them mythic warriors.
Jason “Red Ranger” Scott (Dacre Montgomery) is a mischievous jock who pitched his future into uncertainty with a boneheaded prank that’s busted his knee and his shot at a football scholarship. In detention, he meets newly unpopular cheerleader Kimberly “Pink Ranger” Hart (Naomi Scott) whose been booted from her clique, and brainy Billy “Blue Ranger” Cranston (RJ Cyler), whose autism makes him the target of a sneering bully. Even more isolated are new girl Trini the Yellow Ranger (Becky G.) and trailer park resident Zack the Black Ranger (Ludi Lin), who regularly take to the mines’ land as an escape from prying parents who reject her LGBTQ identity, or the suffocating stress of caring for his ailing mother. But together, this motley crew forges a team that’s challenged with saving the Earth from the destructive scheme of fallen Ranger turned genocidal conquerer Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).
Yup, Rita is a Ranger gone repulsive.
The movie kicks off 65 million years ago, when the first Red Ranger, Zordon (Bryan Cranston, who did voice work on the ’90s series), battled his former teammate Rita on Earth. She struts onto the scene of rubble and death in a green Ranger armor. But once defeated then resurrected, her form becomes a gnarly blend of decay, dirt, stolen gold, and green scraps of her old armor. It’s the sultry and grungy Rita teased in early images, and fueled by Banks’ pointedly campy performance that’s 60% glowering, 20% pouting, 10% cackling, and 10% strutting, and all around awesome. Banks brings the theatricality that made Power Ranger monsters such silly fun. And she proves a heady counterbalance against so much early teen angst.
John Gatins’ script gives each teen a real-world problem with which to contend, adding grit to this reboot in a way that works. Centering each character’s arc on their own identity issues gives the film a welcomed dose of drama that grounds the stakes in something personal. Be it Jason’s urge to redeem himself in his father’s eyes or Trini’s need to find a community, becoming a Ranger means so much more to these teens than saving the world. And Rita becomes a counterpoint, as what turned her evil was her fear that she didn’t fit in. It’s a message sure to connect to the film’s primary audience of young people coming to grasp with their own coming-of-age and self-discoveries.
Similarly, the expansion of Power Rangers’ diverse representation to include autistic character, an LGBTQ hero, and Latina Ranger, bolsters the original concept’s theme of the power of diversity. It show people from different backgrounds, having different abilities, and can come together to create something great, just as a bunch of different dino Zords can come together to create the all powerful Megazord.
All told, “Power Rangers” is pretty solid reboot. I took a property that was in inherently goofy, kept its charms and celebrated them, then added pathos through eager performances, and concludes in a colorful cacophonic climax of action, destruction, and the power of friendship. Power Rangers fans couldn’t ask for something more true to form.