There's a scene in the new Power Rangers movie in which Jason, the Red Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), tells one of his fellow Rangers that what matters isn’t the past, but what one works to make the future. It's a perfectly admirable, earnest sort of sentiment — it's just one that feels a little off, too, given that the past he's referring to involves semi-revenge porn. The same goes for the movie as a whole: it comes close to being great but stumbles before getting to the finish line. That said, the beats it does manage to hit are truly wonderful.
Even if you didn't religiously watch Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as a child, it's hardly difficult to recall the broad strokes of the Power Rangers franchise. Haim Saban's take on Toei's tokusatsu Super Sentai, Power Rangers was an amalgam of bright colors, robots, superheroes, and outsized villains. It was fun, it was fantasy, and it was silly. These aren't traits that generally make it through the modern reboot process (see: the rise of the word "gritty"), but this movie, helmed by Dean Israelite, goes further than just dipping its toe into the silly pool. The scenes that lean into it are thrilling — it's hard not to feel a sense of exhilaration watching robot dinosaurs charge into battle, or the rangers practically flying across canyons as they discover the limits of their new powers.
The story is fairly straightforward. Five misfit teens discover artifacts that imbue them with superpowers, and must then band together in order to fight an ancient evil. The teens here are Jason, the jock fallen from grace, Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the popular girl breaking out of her mold, Zack (Ludi Lin), the bad boy with a soft side, Trini (Becky G), the sullen new girl trying to figure herself out, and Billy (RJ Cyler), who describes himself as being "on the spectrum." All of them are appealingly earnest, but it's Cyler (last seen in the superb Vice Principals) who makes the biggest impression. He does the best job of juggling the changing tone of the material, and when the going starts to get tough, he's the one you'll feel for the most. The other standout in the cast is Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, the aforementioned ancient evil. Where the rest of the movie s tays relatively grounded, Banks cranks things up to eleven (or maybe twenty). The level of glee that she projects is infectious, like the purest distillation of the camp of the source material injected straight into the movie’s bloodstream.
The biggest difficulty that Power Rangers has is in balancing that campiness with the small-town drama that establishes the personalities of each of its heroes. It's a tightrope walk that causes the movie to fall apart in its second half, as elements of both sides become more pronounced. But the first half is something special in a landscape where franchise movies often settle into bland complacency instead of establishing a unique voice. The most striking sequences here are a car chase sans any superpowers or monsters, and brief forays into the home lives of Billy, whose father died in the local mines, and Zack, who, unlike his suburban peers, lives in a mobile home with his ailing mother and communicates with her primarily in Chinese. That he expresses his fear of losing her — and that he says when, not if — is unusually heavy stuff for what is just as much a children's movie as it is a movie for those succumbing to nostalgia. The loneliness and anxiety experienced by each of the characters perfectly captures how hard it can be to grow up. The fact that the teenagers all come from different backgrounds and are of different ethnicities — and that it's only commented on once — is the cherry on top of the cake.
Unfortunately, this only makes the unevenness of the second act all the more jarring. For instance, the original Power Rangers theme song — still just as poppy and candy-like — is cut short by Kanye West's "Power," as if to make the contrast between the original material and current, updated standards all the more obvious. It doesn't help that this comes along with an honestly alarming foray into product placement, as Krispy Kreme practically ends up being its own character.
The movie's visuals also start to get more muddled as the story progresses. The scenes in the town of Angel Grove are pristine, and the sequence in which the teenagers discover Zordon's (Bryan Cranston) ship by diving into and then, defying gravity, out of the other side of a pool of water is gorgeous. But the bigger things get, the more the color seems to drain out of the picture, veering more towards the kind of color grading that's become de rigueur in superhero movies these days. This is especially disappointing given the fact that the climactic battle takes place in broad daylight; it's the exact kind of scenario in which you want to see the colors, rather than be subjected to a grayish CGI blur.
In the end, Power Rangers lands mostly on its feet. Despite its foibles and the parts of it that are obviously geared towards launching a multi-movie empire, it still has more of a heart than most of its peers. It's arguably just too strange not to — it opens by presupposing that dinosaurs went extinct as a direct result of the initial fight between the Rangers and Repulsa, after all — and when it embraces its cast as well as its silliness, it sings.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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