"Power Rangers": The Best Cartoon the 1980's Ever Produced
Power Rangers is the perfect 1980’s cartoon.
Look, never mind the fact that it is not animated and that it didn’t even air in the 1980’s (it reached American shores in 1993). Just bear with me.
By “1980’s cartoon,” I mean a cartoon that mostly ignores atmosphere, character and even plot, but instead just kicks around “good vs. evil” heroics. The good guys have few if any flaws and are often pretty stereotyped. The bad guys scheme up ridiculous plots so over-the-top they usually collapse under their own grandeur. Occasionally, you’ll get a cartoon that transcends the limitations of the genre—He-Man is the best example—but usually they’re about the simplest thing you can imagine.
Nowadays, and at least since the premieres of Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles, cartoons have trended either toward darker atmospheres and flawed protagonists or toward lighter anime series involving friendly competition. In this environment, Power Rangers is practically a throwback.
Let’s focus on the original incarnation, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, for a moment. Its Rangers were thinly disguised stereotypes. Jason, the team leader, was the jock. Zack was the hip-hop African American kid. Billy was the nerd, and Kim was 100% valley girl. The most three-dimensional characters in this original group were Trini, who came across as a more popular version of Velma, and the enigmatic Tommy. As in G. I. Joe, the stereotypes were there to make the characters instantly knowable to kids. And the characters were virtually perfect—they always took part in things like ecology fundraisers—and any character flaws were both introduced and resolved within the scope of an episode.
The bad guys, meanwhile, were led by Rita Repulsa, who was essentially a female amalgam of the Transformers G1 Megatron and Starscream. Sometimes she could think up simple plans that almost worked, but usually, for example, she would just send a monster down to turn Trini’s cousin into a cardboard cut-out. (Really!) And, again like Megatron, she would blame the failure of her overcooked ideas on her henchmen.
And it’s not just its stories that were cartoonish. Power Rangers even featured extensive voiceover work. For many years, it featured the talented voices of the Animaze dubbing studio: Barbara Goodson, Steve Blum, Dave Mallow, Steve Kramer, and many others. Such notable Power Rangers alums as Johnny Yong Bosch and Patricia Ja Lee have since done extensive work as anime voiceover artists.
The show might even have gained by being animated. The Power Rangers series, in all their iterations, have always suffered from the inherent limitations of the live-action format, with all the visual restrictions that implies. In Power Rangers‘ sister series VR Troopers, for example, Gardner Baldwin lent Grimlord an excellent voice, but neither of his costumes were effectively designed for mouth movement. And you only have to look at Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets and the two Voltron series to see how good animated sentai can be.
On the other hand, though, live-action series are better at conveying emotions. Even a hack director can get an audience to choke up if he’s minimally competent, and Power Rangers in its 1998-2002 golden age gave viewers some genuinely wrenching episodes, including an arc that culminated in the shocking death of Lost Galaxy pink ranger Kendrix. (The power of this climax is all the more impressive when you realize that no words alluding to “death” or “dying” could be used in it.) It’s tougher to get an emotional reaction with animation; leaving aside such manipulative exercises as Bambi and Dumbo, I would count only two genuinely moving animated action stories: Beast Wars‘ “Code of Hero” and Batman‘s “I Am the Night.” This says nothing about the general skill level of animators, I point out, and everything about the differences between the live-action and animated art forms.
Power Rangers has evolved over time. Its current incarnations have mixed its simplistic 80’s-derived past with a more incisive 90’s sensibility. But even so, it remains pretty simple, and its stories keep coming back to the same thing that drove the cartoons of the 1980s: solid, unabashed tales of good vs. evil. It’s a throwback, to be sure, but a well-done throwback.
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