All over America parents say their kids have been "overtaken" by Power Rangers, that sometimes their children won't answer unless they use their Power Ranger names. Those whose children have not yet succumbed view the new Mighty Morphin movie as an invading force. Mention of the Power Rangers gets an instant reaction.
At a barbecue just outside Philadelphia three dads share my table, their children running about nearby. Reaching for the relish, I bring up the Rangers. "Sssssh," hisses Dad Number One, "don't let Max hear you or he'll start." "Starting" means he'll slip into Morphin character, take up a martial arts pose, and commence noisy battle with his brother. "My God," whispers Dad Number Two. "It takes me at least two hours to calm them down after the show is on TV." Dad Number Three looks worried, his children are pre-school. "I don't let them watch the show. I think it's too violent. But I'm scared about this autumn, that's when he starts school. I don't know what I'll do then."
He will probably follow the others, the 21.5 million American households who have bought Mighty Morphin merchandising. Who have staggered through snow and ice, earthquake damage, sweltering heat, floods - anything to avoid that look of horrified disappointment on a five-year-old face. "You couldn't get Tommy. I have to have Tommy."
For those who don't know, Tommy is the White Ranger. In the new Mighty Morphin movie, which opened across America last Friday, Tommy leads Aisha, Adam, Billy, Kimberly and Rocky against Ivan Ooze and Rita Repulsa. For any family where the Morphin bug already chops and kicks, the movie will be inescapable. Schools are out for the summer and children know this one is coming, millions of dollars worth of advertising have made sure of that. Immune households will need to spend summer in a Trappist monastery to avoid the pressure. Oh, and reserve rooms for Christmas too, that's when the movie will be available on video.
The Rangers have been a staple of children's TV here since 1993. This is the first feature film but probably not the last. The concept originated in Japan where the plastic-faced morphoids were called "Xyurangers". The five Rangers are normal high school kids until they face danger, in the shape of Repulsa or the evil Lord Zedd. Then they morph into costumed superheroes. Actually, on TV they look like a Vespa motor scooter with arms and legs that can walk upright. Clunky. Not in the film. On celluloid the rangers morph through strips of coloured light and have extra powers courtesy of their boss, Zordon. When in battle, the Rangers hop into Zords. On TV, these really do look like Vespas circa 1970, on the big screen the Zords are sleek. Better-tech versions of Star Wars battle craft.
It's 10am on Saturday in a New York cinema. Three hundred lucky families are at a preview of the movie. Each child clutches at least one bit of Morphin toyware. In turn, many children are held by slightly nervous-looking parents. "I thought this was over," Sarah says. Corey and Mark are her two boys, aged three and five. "Now there will be brand-new toys. The movie has new Ranger costumes. I'll have to get all of them. Last year it took six days to find Corey's favourite." Sarah looks like she might cry.
Corey's father is Matthew. He's here with his new girlfriend and her six-year-old son, Jamie. Matthew is Sarah's ex-husband. Mark is Sarah's boy by her new husband, Andrew. Matthew and Sarah still interrupt each other. "I don't think it's bad for Jamie and Corey..." begins Matthew. "Not so," Sarah says. "Corey's teacher called last month. He'd hurt a classmate in the playground, with a kick to the head." That's a typical Ranger move, good on the screen. Bad on a four-year-old's delicate skull.
Now Andrew wants his say. "The worst thing with Mark is when he's bad. He says it wasn't him. He says it was Billy, his favourite Ranger character. They use the Power Rangers as a cover for bad behaviour. It can be hard to argue against that. Of course, we try to use it back." He sounds desperate and he seems to know it. "We tell him the Power Rangers won't let him morph any more unless he eats his dinner or tidies his room." Mark looks at him as though he's a drone of Lord Zedd.
The lights dim. Noise fills the theatre. Five high-school kids explode on the screen and there are screams of joy. "There's Billy," shouts Mark. Recently the Rangers have been under great pressure from some childcare experts.
A study conducted for Kansas University showed that children who watched programmes such as Sesame Street had much better reading scores than contemporaries who watch mostly shows like Power Rangers. In April a four-year-old child from Mississippi died after he was stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver. His friends said that they been playing Power Rangers.
Psychologists say the Rangers encourage children to solve problems with violence. Margaret Loesch disagrees. She is President of the Fox Children's Network which brought the Rangers to America. "Children delight in the show. It helps them to develop their play-acting. We've produced 10 announcements to teach the difference between fantasy and reality, and to suggest non- violent means of conflict resolution. They run at the end of each programme." I saw one of these with Alexa and her brother Brent, except they weren't watching. They'd gone to battle Lord Zedd the moment it started.
The movie isn't bad, if you like cartoon violence. But it makes a big mistake. One that may save parents from more multiple traumas in toy stores. After just one big battle scene, the Rangers lose their powers and Zordon is almost terminated. The Rangers then start a rather tedious trek across an alien planet in search of restoration. During this time, their Ranger uniforms are modified so they resemble bit players in the Arabian Nights. Apart from one scene ripped straight out of Jurassic Park, not much happens. Kids get bored, like children on an interminable car ride to the beach. "Did they get their powers back yet?" whines one. "Is this them getting their powers back?" snivels another. Soon it's a chorus. "Did they get their powers back yet? Are we there yet?"
Of course, powers are restored. The Rangers return to confront Ivan Ooze who has turned all Earth parents into zombies - the children love this bit. Then there's a battle which Ivan Ooze wins, and all the Rangers die - just kidding. For the real ending, you'll have to see the film. Don't worry, it's coming your way. What was that about turning parents into zombies? Time to morph.
n 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers - The Movie' is on release from 21 JulyReuse content