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“Power Rangers”: A Leap Forward For Intelligence in Family Entertainment

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There was a time during the mid to late 1990s when the various televisual incarnations of Power Rangers were inescapable. From 1993 until 2001, Saban Entertainment, an American-Israeli television production company and Fox, an American broadcast company distributed the American run of Power Rangers, which was partly made up of footage shot in America and partly from Super Sentai, a pre-existing show from Japan.

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Despite the goals of the various broadcasting and production companies being purely monetary, the stories of homophobic bullying emerging behind the scenes and concerns from parents that their children would emulate the various fight scenes, Power Rangers was nothing if not wholesome. Whether it’s because each episode concluded with an, ‘if-we-stick-together-we-can-accomplish-anything’ solution, or because the liberal use of Japanese footage introduced children to a different culture in a way that they did not realise they were being indoctrinated, Power Rangers holds up as one of the most positive pieces of children’s entertainment from the nineties. Thankfully, while the cinematic adaptation has darkened in tone and its characters tackle internal demons as well as the external monsters highlighted from the show, director Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers (2017) is still nothing if not wholesome.

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As is typical for this type of big budgeted superhero movie, this is an origin story and the structure is somewhat bound by those conventions. Five misfit teenagers from a small town called Angel Grove acquire multi-coloured coins that give them special powers that allow them – after the inevitable amount of character development and training montages – to become the Power Rangers; who must defend the earth from the incoming threat of Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). They have help in the shape of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the former group of Rangers, who now exists as a face in the wall of a spaceship that is hidden underground; this is where the new group of Rangers train, preparing for Rita’s arrival.

Still with me so far? Well, that doesn’t matter. Because it’s not the plot contrivances and plot holes that make this a successful adaptation; it’s that it has more than a basic grasp of the psychology of a teenager. Despite being in positions that would make them high school royalty, Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the former quarterback and Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a former cheerleader, are depicted as existing in a wave of ennui. Israelite and screenwriter John Gatins are sensible enough to realise that depression and unhappiness can strike anyone, regardless of popularity, and Montgomery and Scott are also wise enough to know to keep the angst-riddled screaming matches to a minimum, realising that those who live with depression may not engage in constant bouts of crying or screaming. This extends to Billy (RJ Cyler), who explains to Jason that he is on the autistic spectrum. There is little attempt made by Cyler to overplay his mannerisms or to turn him into a bag of quirks, which so often derails depictions of characters who are autistic or on the spectrum.

 

 

The three of them are forced to attend weekend detentions due to various discrepancies and bouts of lashing out, much like the characters in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), the influence of which looms over this film, as both attempt to get under the skin of teenagers on different levels of the social ladder. They are eventually joined by Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (Becky G.), a high school dropout and the insular new girl, respectively and together become the new team of Power Rangers; learning important life lessons and saving the world from evildoers. So, despite the darkening of the tone, this still, very much leans heavily on the ‘if-we-stick-together-we-can-accomplish-anything’ theme that made the show so innocent.

This diverse group of personality types may seem like a somewhat farfetched pairing, but the fact that they’re all dealing with their own issues levels them. By making them vulnerable, it isn’t so ridiculous to think a jock like Jason would want to hang out with someone like Billy. Power Rangers presents an optimistic view of friendship which, I believe attempts to mirror the world we live in today. Of course, bullying is still a persistent issue, but from my recollections of high school it seems there wasn’t as much of a stigma from hanging out with those from different social or developmental walks of life; unlike our parents’ generation, who may have encountered such prejudice more readily when they were teenagers. I do not wish to present myself as an expert, but it seems to me that Power Rangers attempt to show how the differences in varying groups of teenagers is not so great as when John Hughes made The Breakfast Club.

Tonally, the film is a little all over the place, and never quite settles. For example, in the span of ten minutes, you can go from having a scene of the teenagers’ bonding, their friendship growing through discussion, to a scene of Zordon – who, I should remind you, is a face in a wall - talking to Alpha, a cartoon robot (voiced by Bill Hader), meant to entertain very young children. If that’s not enough, several scenes later, Rita, who gains her powers from eating gold, can be seen chasing down homeless people, pulling out their gold fillings and murdering them. This form of tonal whiplash can be extremely jarring and there is never an attempt to reconcile these three different threads, causing the film to awkwardly lurch between teen melodrama, children’s sci-fi adventure and a mature reboot intended for adults. It is also means that because our investment is more with the character development than the action set pieces (of which there are few in the first three-quarters of the running time) that when the city trashing finale does eventually come, we are less invested. All that said, watching Bank’s vamp with such scenery chomping glee is glorious and it makes you wish that all villains were this over-the-top.

In terms of its structure, Power Rangers is similar to Josh Trank’s reboot of Fantastic 4 (2015). Both films contain few action set pieces that one would expect from a film with a budget this large, and when they do come, they’re all in the last quarter. Both films also have a darker tone and darker characterisation than their brighter, more child friendly origins. In pondering why Power Rangers worked where Fantastic 4 didn’t, I came to the conclusion that Fantastic 4 was burdened with darker themes and subject matters that did not suit the goofier tone of the Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four’s comic books. In contrast, Power Rangers (2017) seems to be the natural progression of the show, which always trumpeted the importance of teamwork and friendship. The new set of Rangers may have problems that are more psychological or neurodevelopmental, but they still tackle said issues with the utmost sincerity and optimism. At one point, near the climax, when things are looking their bleakest, Billy says to the group, “thank you for being my friends.” A single line that sums up the entire movie.

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It’s heartening to know that the core values of the Power Rangers franchise have not changed much since the '90s. While the show may have been aimed at younger children, and any life lesson preached in any given episode would have to be handled with a soft, kid-glove approach, the movie is a reflection more than it’s a departure. The show had a group of teenagers who were from different social groups and different racial backgrounds and made them equals. This movie is very much the same; it simply goes a little deeper and extends its attempts of diversity past just race and social life and into neurodevelopmental disorders and depictions of depression. Alpha sums it up nicely: “Five different kids. Five different colours. Five different coloured kids.”

Perhaps if a sequel is made they can tackle more subjects that face teenagers that were only hinted at, but not explored fully in this movie. For example, there is a suggestion that Trini may be a lesbian. When Zack asks her during one of the group’s heart-to-heart bonding sessions: “Are you having boy troubles? Or… girl troubles?” This goes unanswered, but the dramatic pause suggests that this otherwise unexplored territory is worthy of exploration. Given how David Yost, who portrayed Billy in the show, was bullied so fiercely by the crew behind the scenes for being homosexual to the point where he quit, delving deeper into Trini’s sexual orientation may have been a way for the franchise to redeem this particular black mark. Alas, the opportunity was missed this time, but if a sequel comes there will be a second chance. Another example would be Zack’s impending homelessness, as he lives with his mother who is slowly dying of a terminal illness, possibly cancer. With no other family and his tendency to be the lone wolf of the group, this could be an interesting subject matter to explore, if it’s handled as delicately as the way depression or being a teenager on the spectrum is handled. It’s not that this film is not bold, but it could stand to be a little bolder. Perhaps Israelite held back due to not wanting to overload the plot or perhaps he was being overly cautious; whatever the reason, these missed opportunities do hold back what is an otherwise mature film.

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Perhaps the greatest reason why Power Rangers works so well: is that so few of the moderns adaptations of popular children’s shows and movies from the 1980s and 1990s work at all, and none so maturely as this. So, it is somewhat blessed by low expectations, as it first only has to be better than the likes of GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009) or Ghostbusters (2017) before being considered good on its own merits. It’s easier to be totally won over by a movie that has already partly won us over, which sounds like a contradiction, but such is the affection for the show or its various incarnations over the years since 1993. Forgive me for saying this, but if the future of the Power Ranger franchise is this, then I say “Go Go Power Rangers!”