‘Mighty Morphin’ Movie is a Love Letter to Millennial Nostalgia

I’ve lived long enough that things I loved as a kid are getting reunions. Most of the time, it’s the cast reuniting for a reflection on the show or film franchise and its impacts, such as Harry Potter, Friends, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Other times, the result is an unfocused mess where desperation, and drug abuse, are apparent, such as in the case of Alex Mack. Even rarer is a project that not only serves as a reunion but a narrative that corresponds to the canon of the original franchise.

This brings me to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always, a new special released by Netflix to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the franchise. This special is more-or-less in continuity with the other Power Rangers series, and a few Easter eggs here and there reaffirm its relationship to the larger universe. Even the title plays on a popular line from the show: “Once a Ranger, Always a Ranger.”

The plot concerns the original cast from the 1990s, suffering the loss of Trini Kwan, originally played by Thuy Trang, at the hands of series antagonist Robo-Rita Repulsa. In real life, Trang was killed in an automobile accident in 2001. In this continuity, Trini’s daughter, Minh, played by promising newcomer Charlie Kersh, seeks revenge on Robo-Rita for killing her mom.

Minh is being raised by Zack Taylor (Walter Emmanuel Jones), the 1st Black Ranger and currently serving as a congressman in the midst of trying to raise, in the parlance of the show, a “teenager with attitude.” Billy Cranston (David Yost), the 1st Blue Ranger, is a tech billionaire who essentially gets to be the equivalent of Tony Stark. However, after some of the Rangers are taken hostage, their eventual replacements become their back-ups, as is the case with 2nd Pink Ranger Katherine Hillard (Catherine Sutherland) and 2nd Red Ranger Rocky DeSantos (Steve Cardenas). They are all summoned to the Command Center to become Rangers once again to thwart Robo-Rita’s evil agenda and save the universe.

The whole thing culminates with a big battle at Robo-Rita’s castle on the Moon, with the Rangers themselves using martial arts against an army of “puddies” and eventually summoning their massive Zords for a climactic monster fight reminiscent of the climaxes of most episodes of the show. There are even much-welcome cameos from the 2nd Yellow Ranger Aisha Campbell (Karan Ashley) and the 2nd Black Ranger Adam Park (Johnny Yong Bosch) completing a mission in space.

This special is a lot of fun and is bound to scratch that nostalgic itch for ‘90s babies. The cast is mostly serviceable, with the returning Rangers coming back to their roles with relative ease. I was impressed with the emotional weight and baggage through the perspective of Minh’s grief and her new normal without her mom but with a surrogate parent. In that way, the special is more like the more mature Power Rangers comic book output from Boom! Studios in recent years than it is the original show.

There are also things I would have liked to have seen more of. For example, there’s a billboard advertising a new sandwich shop owned by occasional antagonists and perpetual comedic relief Bulk (Paul Schrier) and Skull (Jason Narvy), but we don’t see the two characters themselves, which would have served a fun cameo.

I also couldn’t help but notice, in what might serve as an example of corporate synergy, that the forms the Power Rangers take once captured resemble action figures from the recent Lightning Collection, a boutique release of high-quality Ranger figures from different eras and iterations of the show. The conceit that she is kidnapping Rangers from different series and eras works fine, but the absence of some of the more notable Rangers, including 1st Pink Ranger Kimberly Hart (Amy Jo Johnson) and Green/White Ranger Tommy Oliver (the late Jason David Frank), is curious.

Another actor from the early lineup of the show, Austin St. John, who played the 1st Red Ranger, is facing legal trouble for allegedly embezzling COVID relief money and was unavailable. Amy Jo Johnson denied claims that she didn’t do the special because it didn’t pay her enough, saying that she didn’t say “no” so much as she “didn’t say yes to what was offered,” and “maybe [she] just didn’t want to wear spandex in [her] 50s.” The special ends in dedication to both Thuy Trang and Jason David Frank, the latter of whose passing last fall served as a massive blow to the franchise and its legion of fans.

Once & Always doesn’t feel like a big affair, and that’s because it doesn’t need to be. At only about an hour long, it’s easily digestible and is hardly a massive undertaking. To its credit, it realized that the nostalgia for Power Rangers, particularly in its earliest incarnation, came from its low-budget appeal. Rather than big-budget stakes and state-of-the-art CGI reminiscent of the 2017 big-budget reboot, Once & Always has opted for an aesthetic that feels very much like the original show. I, for one, mostly welcome that, but it can also be somewhat of a hindrance and make the production look anachronistic for 2023.

This project was clearly meant for the fans, and it shows. It probably won’t mean much to those without a pre-established love of the franchise, but it would serve as a useful introduction if current millennials want to acquaint the series and concepts to their kids, or to younger nieces, nephews, or cousins for the first time. For those seeking an enjoyable stroll down memory lane, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always is an effective, fun time that will remind you of what endeared kids all over the world to Power Rangers in the first place and to celebrate this milestone anniversary with some of the show’s original heroes.