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Why Power Rangers is a one-of-a-kind TV franchise

The new big-budget movie seems ashamed of the original series' low-budget zaniness. That's a shame.

Saban Entertainment/Shout! Factory

Those of a certain age — roughly early to mid-30s — probably have at least dim memories of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the live-action sci-fi program about a group of teenagers granted the ability to transform into a powerful team of color-coded, spandex-clad warriors who piloted giant fighting robots. The Rangers juggled small-scale high school social dramas along with global showdowns, mostly against the cackling baddie Rita Repulsa and her army of brainless creatures.

It’s all but impossible to divorce those memories, and the series’ nostalgic value, from the show’s gloriously cheap-looking aesthetic: Even for its day, the show’s production values were so minimal that it sometimes looked as if the whole thing had been shot on home video. There were glaringly obvious continuity errors, and action scenes that didn’t really seem to follow from the story.

Still, there was something charmingly cheesy about the whole enterprise — a loopy, low-budget zaniness that helped turn Power Rangers into a surprisingly huge hit that ran for 24 seasons and spawned an entertainment and merchandizing franchise.

Now, more than two decades later, some of the show’s young fans are entering their creative primes in Hollywood and strip-mining their childhood enthusiasm in hopes of striking box office gold. Just as the Rangers’ oversize robot dinosaurs, known as Zords, inevitably combined into a giant robot warrior at the end of each episode, the series has been transformed, via a big-budget, big-screen reboot that attempts to repackage the franchise for a contemporary audience.

The result, for the most part, is a blandly conventional $100 million superhero origin movie that beefs up the production values but strips the franchise of the quirks that made it appealing in the first place.

Might Morphin’ Power Rangers was a ’90s show with an ’80s business model — and a weird production method

When it debuted in 1993, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was extending a business model straight out of the 1980s: an action series built around an oddball science fiction premise that provided plenty of opportunities for merchandise sales. As with G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers, each episode was essentially a half-hour commercial for all the Power Rangers stuff you could pick up at the local toy store. The show combined the appeal of brightly colored, action figure–ready humanoid characters with the lure of giant fighting robots, which had featured prominently in previous kid-targeted action shows such as GoBots, Transformers, and Voltron.

But the live-action series was, in its own way, stranger and more fanciful than its animated predecessors. The Rangers were managed by a giant floating head in a tube named Zordon, and assisted by a tiny chattering robot named Alpha 5, whose constant anxiety provided a comic counterpoint to Zordon’s expository seriousness. The action scenes looked like interpretive dance as translated by an aerobics instructor, and the high school subplots could be goofy in the extreme. (One early episode, “A Pig Surprise,” was built around a pair of bullies named Bulk and Skull, who adopted and cared for a pet pig.) Scenes set in one locale were sometimes mysteriously transported to another as soon as the teenagers transformed into the Rangers or called out the Zords.

Much of this off-kilter charm is owed to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers’ unusual production method: It was not an original TV show, but rather a localized adaptation of the program Super Sentai, a popular Japanese superhero show. Power Rangers’ creators spliced together action scenes from Sentai with new footage of American teenagers speaking original dialogue in plots that often diverged completely from the original storylines. The show was a mashup, in other words, of recycled action footage and more prosaic material.

The reason the series’ creators chose this format was simple enough: It was inexpensive. Instead of filming the effects sequences themselves, the creators could license them and then shoot cheap filler footage to cut in around it. That gave the show a weirdly blenderized quality, with different film stocks for different scenes, and fight sequences that didn’t always make sense on their own terms, much less in the context of the stories that led to them.

Power Rangers built a strange and complex mythology over 24 seasons

Yet somehow, complex stories and characters began to emerge from this awkward mix of styles and cultures. Power Rangers’ momentum persisted and grew over 24 seasons — the latest of which began in January 2017 — ranging from as few as 22 to as many as 60 episodes each. And while ownership rights have changed hands — the show has aired on networks owned by Fox, ABC, and Nickelodeon — and production locations have shifted (in 2003, production was moved from Los Angeles to New Zealand), the essential hybrid format has remained. The result is a sprawling and complex serialized mythology that has played out over more than 830 episodes of television.

A big factor in Power Rangers’ continued relevance is its willingness to move in different directions with each season. In the middle of season two, three of the original Rangers — Jason, Trini, and Zack — departed from the show. The writers replaced them with three new Rangers, and although the transition was somewhat rocky, the abrupt shift helped lay the groundwork for seasons to come. As the show progressed, the various Rangers (and the actors who played them) would come and go, with completely new teams appearing on a regular basis. Most would take on the colored mantles of the original Rangers, in red, black, blue, yellow, and pink, but other colors — green, white, and “Titanium” — showed up as well, and frequently brought with them new powers and plot-driving backstories.

Beginning around the series’ third year, seasons started being driven by sprawling story arcs, each with its own, often goofy name, like Dino Charge, Alien Rangers, Zeo, Lightspeed Rescue, and Mystic Force. To mark the change in direction, most of the seasons were given unique theme songs — altogether, there are 17 variations on the catchy “Go, Go, Power Rangers” opening number. By refusing to be pinned down to one storyline or set of Rangers, the show made a virtue out of narrative advancement and radical change.

As the series went on, it also embraced its essential silliness. The Rangers fought bizarre and monstrous villains like Terror Toad (what it sounds like) and Pudgy Pig, an enormous helmeted pig head with stubby arms and legs. “Curse of the Cobra,” an episode from season eight, Lightspeed Rescue, pits the Titanium Ranger against an evil snake tattoo that comes to life. It was truly silly stuff, and at their best, episodes tended to resemble kid-friendly sci-fi acid trips, held together by emo-teen dream logic, in which troubles at school and troubles with giant pumpkin creatures all carry about the same weight.

At this point, summarizing the complete 800-plus-episode story, with all its twists and turns, would be impossible. But like any long-running comic book or soap opera — and Power Rangers is, at heart, a kind of cross between the two — the sheer sprawl is part of the appeal.

To get a sense of just how complicated the Power Rangers canon has become, one online fan, Lewis Jeffrey Lovhaug, who goes by the online handle Linkara, has over the past seven years produced nearly two dozen episodes of an online video review of the series, titled History of the Power Rangers. It’s a wide-ranging and comprehensive analysis of the series, its characters, its themes, its quirks and tropes, and how they have evolved over hundreds of episodes.

It’s a loving, funny, hyper-knowledgeable tribute to a show that Lovhaug sometimes finds deeply frustrating, and its very existence is an indicator not only of how weird and sprawling and delightfully chaotic the show is but of what’s made it a multi-decade success, in spite of — or perhaps because of — its humble origins.

The big-budget movie lacks the low-budget quirks that made the series so much fun

It’s inevitable that a TV franchise as big as Power Rangers would eventually spawn a movie, and the series has in fact spawned three. The first, released in 1995, was a quickly produced, modestly budgeted picture designed to cash in on the success of the TV show. It starred actors from the series but notably didn’t use any recycled footage. A second film, 1997’s little-seen Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, was barely more than an extended episode of the TV series connecting two seasons of the show.

The latest film differs from those two attempts in that it’s an adaptation, rather than a continuation of the series that functions in the same world as the TV show. The new Power Rangers transplants the basic Power Rangers concept — small-town teens gain powers and control of dino-robots — without any of the source material’s idiosyncratic charms.

It’s a by-the-numbers superhero origin story, with bland characters, poorly staged action scenes, and muddy, mediocre effects, despite a production budget north of $100 million. The screenplay, by John Gatins, gestures toward character development, but the Rangers themselves come across like characters from a forgettable teen soap opera. The dialogue is heavy on expository gibberish, nearly all of which is delivered by Bryan Cranston as the digitally spruced-up Zordon. He checks off references to series lore like the Zeo Crystal and the Morphing Grid, but none of it adds any texture or depth to the world.

Becky G. as Trini (the Yellow Ranger) and Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa in the new Power Rangers.
Lionsgate

The story, meanwhile, is little more than a dull and perfunctory retelling of the series opener, in which the Rangers fight Rita Repulsa, an army of putty monsters, and a hulking gold monster named Goldar. Elizabeth Banks plays Repulsa, and her knowing, over-the-top performance is the only part of the movie that really works, in part because it follows the same sort of unrestrained, zany anti-logic as the show: She delivers her lines with campy gusto, and the third-act showdown starts with her delicately eating a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

The doughnut shop scene is a blatant product tie-in, but it also offers a moment of sweet and refreshing strangeness in the midst of an otherwise tedious and formulaic big-budget production, in part because it’s the sort of out-of-left-field bit you might have found in the original series. It’s a reminder of the power of low budgets and production limitations to spur creative invention. The entire movie, meanwhile, should serve as a warning about the perils of attempting to transplant one’s adolescent interests into adulthood; some childhood enthusiasms are best left to childhood.