It’s hard to say what’s more indicative of Hollywood’s franchise-happy, nostalgia-centric present—the fact that there’s a new Power Rangers movie in theaters with a budget of over $100 million, or the fact that it’s pretty good. It seems that studios long ago hit rock bottom in their efforts to mine every marginally beloved piece of pop culture from a certain generation’s childhood to make new reboots and sequels. Nonetheless, they kept digging, and the latest result is Power Rangers—a bizarre mish-mash of teen drama, kitschy sci-fi action, and a heap of winking throwbacks for children of the ’90s. It sounds like a holy mess, but incredibly, it succeeds, on the back of some extremely self-aware charm.
The 1993 children’s TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was itself a bizarre mish-mash. It cut together action scenes from a Japanese TV series (the long-running Super Sentai, in which costumed heroes fought strange monsters and giant robots) with footage of American actors playing high-school students. It was a huge success pitched right at second-graders—a violent, pleasantly tacky blend of genres and visual aesthetics designed to sell toys. In 2017, this is what amounts to a beloved pop cultural property; with every comic book and children’s toy line already franchised to the gills, there are only so many options left to fling at viewers in this hyper-extended summer season.
Happily, this new Power Rangers seems delighted by the ridiculousness of the work it’s adapting. Though there’s some effort to move beyond the Saved by the Bell approach of the original show and pump in a grittier teen vibe (think Riverdale, or a sillier Friday Night Lights), this is still a movie that opens on a scene set in the Cretaceous period, where a nude and blue-skinned alien called Zordon (Bryan Cranston) summons a meteor to strike the earth to wipe out his nemesis Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). The dinosaurs, it seems, were unintended collateral damage.
Sixty-five million years later, ne’er-do-well quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery, who looks like a generic drugstore version of Zac Efron) gets sent to detention for stealing a cow and totaling his car in the sleepy seaside town of Angel Grove, California. This sets into motion a Breakfast Club-style chain of events where five mismatched kids become fast friends and discover some mysterious glowing coins buried in a nearby mountain that can turn them into alien super-soldiers. As you do.
But don’t stress the details too much—Power Rangers doesn’t want you to, after all. It’s mostly going for “high-school buddy comedy,” crossed with some mildly psychedelic sci-fi nonsense. Jason’s new friends are Kimberly (Naomi Scott), a former cool girl now on the outs from her cheerleader friends after a cyber-bullying scandal; Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic boy who’s good with gadgets; Trini (the singer Becky G), an outsider who hints that she’s questioning her sexuality; and Zack (Ludi Lin), an aggressively enthusiastic Chinese American bro who’s not afraid to brag about how much he loves his mother.
Every line of dialogue ranges between clumsily heartfelt and nakedly absurd; the performances are all likeable, though only Cyler’s could be called truly proficient. The others make up for it with sheer enthusiasm, which Power Rangers has in spades. Going in, I feared this film would feel blandly competent—that it would be a brand exercise with too much money behind it to embrace its forebear’s lovable weirdness. Not so. Though some of the movie’s oddest moments feel inadvertent—like the suddenness with which it lurches between angsty conversations about revenge porn and chase sequences involving robotic mastodons—Power Rangers always remembers not to take itself seriously.
How could it, when its plot concerns a 65-million-year-old alien diva trying to dig up an ancient crystal that’s buried below a Krispy Kreme? Any time Power Rangers threatens to get too earnest, Banks shows up babbling straight at the camera about gold, in a performance that functions as a delightfully campy homage to the ’90s show. Cranston, honoring his years of work as a voice actor on the show, is a little more routine as the Rangers’ mentor Zordon, barking orders at them from behind a spaceship viewscreen.
The film eventually descends into mediocre, CGI-dependent action, but it takes more than an hour for it to be “morphin’ time.” Eventually, the heroes don their brightly colored armor and jump into their dinosaur-themed robots to save the day (and, yes, one of their key battles takes place in an unremarkable quarry, as was tradition on the show). Still, most of Power Rangers is a winning and cartoonish coming-of-age tale about supermodel-pretty misfit kids bonding in the belly of an alien spaceship. In other words, it’s a March blockbuster that understands just how silly it needs to be. Power Rangers might be destined for the failed franchise heap, or it might be the beginning of an interminable saga. But at least it remembers where it came from.