Friday 21 April 2023

Special REVIEW: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always

While some hardcore Power Rangers fans may lament at how much the franchise seems to rely on it these days, but there's no denying how much the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers changed the pop culture landscape. As one of the biggest children's television programmes of the earlier 1990s, it's hard to find a child of that generation that doesn't have fond memories of the spandex-clad superheroes. And to celebrate its 30th anniversary, fans are getting a reunion like never before. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always is a 55-minute Netflix special which reunites several members of the MMPR cast for one more fight, paying tribute to the past as well as looking forward toward the future.

Robo-RitaThe death of Trini Kwan

When an experiment to revive Zordon goes horribly wrong, Billy inadvertently brings Rita Repulsa back to life in a new robot body! The powerful new Robo Rita faces down the original rangers, with Trini sacrificing herself in battle to save Billy. Not only faced with the tragic loss of their friend, Zack and Billy also agonise on how to break the news to Trini's daughter Minh, as well as whether to reveal her identity as a Power Ranger.

One year later, Zack has become Minh's guardian as she trains in the hope of one day getting revenge against Rita. When Rita finally returns from hiding, Power Rangers from across the planet are captured as part of her master plan. It's up to Billy, Zack, Rocky and Kat to put a stop to Rita once and for all, while Minh struggles to live up to her mother's legacy and learn what it truly means to be a Power Ranger.

Introducing Minh KwanReturning Rangers

Straight away it feels important to note that Once & Always isn't just a special for longtime Power Rangers fans. In fact, between the characters featured and the way the story develops it's clear that it was designed not only to be fully approachable by the most casual of fans but also those who might not have thought about Power Rangers since their childhoods. The focus on Mighty Morphin specifically doesn't just work because of its 30th anniversary, but ultimately because it's the one iteration that everyone remembers. Even with four out of the six original cast members absent from the special, that original lineup still plays a huge part in this. Some will of course be disappointed that Jason, Kimberley and Tommy don't make direct appearances, but hopefully many will be satisfied in that they weren't at least completely forgotten about. Likewise there isn't too much focus on continuity either, which is nothing but a good thing given how alienating suddenly having to catch up on nearly 30 years of Power Rangers history would be. It doesn't matter how the Rangers suddenly have their dino powers back, why two different Rangers are able to use the same set of powers or how the original Megazord is back - they just are. If something really needs an explanation (such as the aforementioned different rangers/same powers scenario), it's explained as succinctly as possible. Casual fans simply don't care about the small details, and veteran fans have been watching long enough to know that a lot has changed since the original Mighty Morphin team has been away.

That isn't to say that Once & Always isn't rewarding to longtime fans though, because there is plenty in the way of continuity and world-building to sink your teeth into here. From throwaway quotes to surprise eggs, Zyuranger references and nods to the future of other Power Rangers teams, this both a treasure trove and love-letter to the universe Power Rangers has created over the years. And on top of paying respect to the past, it also builds up the future that's rife for speculation. We see Billy has created "Cranston Tech" and modelled it on the Command Centre, working to bring back Zordon after he sacrificed himself at the end of Power Rangers in Space (something which is directly referenced, but again done so in a "if you know, you know" sort of way). Even if this is the last we see of the Mighty Morphin team, is this something which could have a bearing on the franchise in the future? Who knows, but with the franchise developing stories in more avenues than ever before it's fun to speculate. But even without that, just seeing things like Ernie's Juice Bar faithfully recreated, a new Megazord cockpit or even just Billy having a new version of the Radbug are enough to warm your heart.

"It's Morphin Time!"Aisha and Adam

At the centre of the story is the death of Yellow Ranger Trini, reminding us all of the tragic loss of actress Thuy Trang in 2001. It is unfortunate that the more recent passing of Jason David Frank could not be honoured in the same way, however the special is lovingly dedicated to the memory of both of them. Story-wise, opening on Trini's death is shocking - immediately giving the story gravity and not necessarily showing Once & Always as a "grown up Power Rangers", but a Power Rangers that has grown up alongside its audience. The show has had its fair share of death in the past, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an example of it that talks about death and killing so much (almost too much at times). But when it comes to creating a legacy for Trini, its heart is certainly in the right place. With little time and development, Charlie Kersh's Minh Kwan is a wonderful successor to Trini's legacy - and seems to have already proved popular enough that fans are asking to see more of her. Though her revenge story may be a fairly common one in TV and film, seeing it so directly through a Power Rangers lens is enough to keep it interesting - and the lessons Minh learns about revenge not being the answer tie in nicely with Zordon's teachings of what it means to be a Power Ranger. It tugs at the heartstrings, while giving a new meaning to the "teenagers with attitude" line Power Rangers has had since its very beginning.

Minh may be carrying forward the legacy of the Yellow Ranger, but there are plenty of veteran rangers around to support her. With the actors themselves having had input on the script, Once & Always both how the characters and actors have grown in the years away. Walter Jones in particular gives his best ever performance as Zack, juggling both the role of being a Power Ranger and a parent as he takes up the role of Minh's guardian following Trini's death. Similarly David Yost portrays a far more tortured Billy, feeling responsible for Trini's death after his actions led to Rita's revival. While the pair are the driving force behind Once & Always as far as the veteran cast are concerned, it's wonderful to see Rocky and Kat back again to round up the team - particularly with it being the first time either of them have been on the team alongside Zack. Kat in particular has had more development than the special would care to let on, with the script recognising her (and Tommy's son) JJ from the Soul of the Dragon comic (as well as Ninja Steel's Dimensions in Danger) while skirting around her relationship with Tommy. With appearances from Adam, Aisha and a new Alpha as well, it really does feel like each season of Mighty Morphin was represented even if some of the key players from season one are missing. The unique lineup also gives a refreshing team dynamic too, and it's great to see Billy and Zack taking charge as the Blue and Black Rangers rather than it de facto going to the Red Ranger simply because there's one there.

Zack and MinhInside the Megazord

It wouldn't be a true Power Rangers reunion without the original Empress of Evil though, and even in a new robot body Rita Repulsa is just as fantastic as ever. The suit itself looks amazing, not only replacing Rita's flesh with an eerie robotic stare but also twisting other parts of her iconic costume to become more technological - such as her breast plate and staff. Killing Trini instantly adds an extra level of menace to the character, and even though Rita didn't have that many direct tussles with the rangers in the past we immediately see that she is a force to be reckoned with. Legendary voice actor Barbara Goodson returns to voice the character once more and puts in an absolutely stellar performance - gleefully chewing the scenery as if Rita Repulsa had never left. While it is a shame that the special doesn't feature any reference to Lord Zedd or her other henchmen at Bandora Palace, again keeping it simple works to its advantage. With Goldar having recently (sort of) reappeared in Beast Morphers and Lord Zedd running around in Dino Fury it was wise to keep this solely about Power Rangers' first major villain - adding to her legacy and making her more of a threat than ever before.

Rita hasn't come alone though, and along with an army of putties she's also flanked by new robotic versions of classic Mighty Morphin monsters. While the Robo-Rita suit is fantastic, the Robo-Snizzard and Robo-Minotaur are where the costume department really shines in this special. Instantly recognisable, yet given that modern Power Rangers touch when it comes design and execution. Seeing them in action bodes very well for the upcoming Cosmic Fury, which is set to be entirely original-footage outside of the zord action. 

Alpha 9Robo-Snizzard and Robo-Minotaur

But as wonderful a dose of nostalgia Once & Always may be, it certainly isn't without its flaws - though many of them are pretty typical Power Rangers complaints. The acting can be a bit wooden, the dialogue cringey and the story a little silly at time, but when has that ever stopped Power Rangers in the past? Without those things, it simply wouldn't be Power Rangers, and seeing/hearing all those elements again is just as nostalgic as seeing our favourite heroes punching Putties again. Other elements however are a little more unique to this special, particularly the zord battle that serves as the film's climax. Even acknowledging the fact that Once & Always was made on limited time, budget and resources, it simply does not look good. For all the criticisms levied at 1995's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie for having dated CGI, things haven't really improved that much 28 years later. However one has to acknowledge that seeing the Megazord again was probably a big draw for a lot of people, and the transformation sequence is just as satisfying as ever. 

With control of the franchise now of course being in Hasbro's hands you also have to admire (and perhaps be a little cynical) of all the brand synergy going on here too. The miniature rangers Rita captures are all Lightning Collection figures, and the look of the Megazord is directly lifted from the recent Zord Ascension Project release. Even the choice of monsters in the special feels somewhat calculated, with Snizzard's original look having just received a Lightning Collection figure a few months back and the Minotaur having just been revealed for release just before Once & Always landed. Not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with this – Power Rangers has always been a toy-centric brand and that certainly wasn't going to change under Hasbro, but it is fun to look as both an adult and collector of these toys.

Product Placement at its finestThe Dino Megazord

Ultimately you could pick holes in it just as you would any other Power Rangers production, but as a 30th anniversary special Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always delivers exactly what you'd expect and more. The spirit and energy of the original show has been perfectly recreated (for better and worse) – offering fond memories and a healthy dose of nostalgia not only to long-time Power Rangers fans, but also those who may have just grown up with the original series and then naturally drifted away. Because of that, it's hard to be too critical of any shortcomings the special has. It's like being five years old all over again.

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