Film Reviews

Sugar High

This is an announcement to all the concerned parents who believe that Fox Network's brain-dead TV fistfest Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is part of a gigantic corporate conspiracy to addict your children to violence and licensed merchandise:

Yes, it is. But you should drop your torches, and Twentieth Century Fox's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie demonstrates why.

Translated from shrill, small-screen semi-camp to a wide-screen mixture of sturdy computer animation and gigantic, kitschy sound stages, the Power Rangers appear as keepers of a fierce morality and role models for old-fashioned virtues -- trust, faith, conviction, responsibility. The producers have even dropped the TV show's most offensive element -- the continuous humiliation of a fat kid and an ugly kid named, respectively, Bulk and Skull, who always attempt to participate in the Rangers' adventures but are just too ... well, fat, ugly and poorly dressed ever to make the cut.

In the TV show, Bulk and Skull have personalities. In the film, their participation is cut to zero; similarly, the movie makes no attempt whatsoever to create distinguishing character traits for any of the six teenage mannequins who don Ranger regalia -- something that only emphasizes the significance of their foot-to-face battle against evil. In this cartoon universe, there's no moral relativism. It's easy to pick your sides: the heroes are dreamy teenagers in jumpsuits, the bad guys are unknowns in grotesquely sculpted monster costumes.

Media critics and activists have been all over the producers of TV's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, righteously reenergized by presidential candidate Bob Dole's halfhearted jab at Hollywood power brokers. The problem with many of these well-meaning naysayers is that they miss the point (and miss that, over the last five years, the film and TV entertainment available to children has blossomed, making the Power Rangers a small part of a varied universe, not an all-powerful influence). The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, film and TV versions, should be appreciated for what they are -- high-adrenaline junk entertainment, the cinematic state of nirvana for a trendy trifle that'll die out quicker than you can say Northern Exposure, a pop culture touchstone for a generation of adults to come.

In case you need a crash course, the Power Rangers are the ultimate space-traveling, crime-fighting clique -- six racially integrated, expressionless teenagers who all look like J.C. Penney catalog models. They were chosen at random by a wise force of Good (who looks like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Darth Vader) to protect the universe from a handful of intergalactic villains. They call upon gigantic animal robots named Zords that look like the Go-bots that were popular years ago.

In the movie, the Rangers are enlisted to find a new source of energy for their mentor, who's been nearly destroyed by Ivan Ooze, a purple tyrant with tentacles all over his face who spits out loogies that become armies of huge, squawking, intergalactic crows. The Rangers must travel to another planet to retrieve this power, and are helped by a vivacious, loincloth-wearing witch who looks a lot like Adrienne Barbeau in Swamp Thing.

The film tracks the journey of the Power Rangers with the same awe evident in David Attenborough's telling of Gandhi's quest, but with a lot more kickboxing sequences. Although the bloodless one-on-one battles still dominate -- highlights in the film include a dinosaur skeleton that runs amuck in a forest, and stainless steel, computer-generated insects that trample through a city's streets -- the film has weird, lingering scenes in which the Power Rangers commune with animal spirits and generally bond in a familylike way. Except, of course, for ponytailed Tommy and horse-faced Kimberly, the White and the Pink Rangers, respectively, who moisten their lips at each other between combat scenes.

Watching the Power Rangers movie is like opening a junk drawer and rummaging through stuff accumulated over the last three decades. Seeing the pseudo-mystical situations and weird slapstick comedy, I was reminded at different moments of a whole laundry list of childhood favorites -- the Star Wars movies, H.R. Puf 'n' Stuff, Bruce Lee movies, Tolkien's Ring stories, Ralph Bakshi, Ray Harryhausen, Battlestar Galactica and, of course, all the denizens of Monster Island.

This kind of entertainment should be given to kids in controlled doses. But there's no reason to believe that today's commercial blockbusters can't provide fertile possibilities for a kid's imagination, the way comic books and adventure stories and radio plays have throughout the years.

Sitting around me at the Power Rangers screening were several children who screamed and kicked their legs during the fast-edit fight stunts, as that drum-hammering, heavy-metal guitar soundtrack hollered, "Go, go! Power Rangers!" It was a moment that should have shocked me -- but then Kimberly did a double flip through the air in her helmet and jumpsuit, and I had a flash of both Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in the late '60s live-action Batman series. I experienced a sudden, powerful childhood thirst for schlock TV, and soon realized why Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie will be part of another visually induced sugar high for today's grade school-age kids.

If parents take an active hand in helping guide their children through the fecund garden of American popular entertainment, there's no reason why kids can't develop an appreciation for narrative and mythology from exposure to the caricaturish hits that pass in and out of favor faster than hemlines. Even if some adults are repelled by the mindless repitition found in the Power Rangers film and TV show, there are real -- if transitory -- imaginative pleasures to be taken from the Rangers' banality. Especially when they pay so much respect to their elders.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie.
Directed by Bryan Spicer. With Karan Ashley, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Jason David Frank, Amy Jo Johnson and David Yost.

Rated PG.
88 minutes.