Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once and Always releases on Netflix April 19, 2023.
Less of a movie and more of a one-hour special episode, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once and Always commemorates the 30th anniversary of MMPR. With that framing in mind, it delivers just about everything you’d expect, for better and for worse. A few members of the original cast team up with other familiar faces from the more recent spin-offs to stop a classic villain, and it captures the franchise’s signature schlocky look and feel as though it were made back in 1993, when the series first debuted in the US. It’s just as cheesy as ever, and the plot won’t exactly thrill those of us who have grown up since the Rangers’ heyday. But what elevates this special above just a trip down memory lane is its intimate focus on the tragic real-world loss of Yellow Ranger actor Thuy Trang, and its surprisingly emotional story about grief.
Trang passed away in a car accident in 2001, but Once and Always is the first time her death is acknowledged in canon. Her final appearance on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was in the Season 2 episode “Power Transfer” where Yellow Ranger Trini Kwan, along with Jason and Zack, left the team to join a peace conference. This special offers fans some closure as we learn how the Yellow Ranger met her fate, meet the daughter she left behind, and see how the team grapples with her tragic loss. It’s a heavy subject to tackle in a series that usually keeps things light and fun, so it’s a credit to script writers Becca Barnes and Alwyn Dale that they handle it with such genuine heart and sincerity.
Original MMRP actors David Yost and Walter Jones return to their roles as Billy and Zach, respectively, and as they mourn Trini it’s clear to see they’re expressing actual grief about losing their real-world castmate and friend. While Billy and Zach try to deal with the returned Rita Repulsa, they also struggle to raise Trini’s daughter, Minh, and it’s their fatherly relationship with this hot-headed teen that forms the tender emotional heart of the story.
It’s not much of a surprise that Minh wants to take up her mother’s Power Morpher, but, understandably, Billy and Zach aren’t keen on the idea after what happened to Trini. They’re full of lessons about the dangers of seeking vengeance and they become overly protective of her. But Minh has a fighting spirit and some slick martial arts skills to match. She’s an effective centerpiece of the special, as she embodies Trini’s kindness and humor, yet she’s also consumed by a rage that makes her unpredictable and brash – and entertaining to watch!
Once and Always may have a serious subject at its core, but it still remembers to have plenty of fun. There’s playful martial arts action, weird monster villains, and colorful settings galore. As one would expect from a 30th anniversary special, it goes hard on the nostalgia, and as someone who grew up watching MMPR religiously as a kid the many callbacks definitely did the trick on me.
That said, I had to put my childhood MMRP fandom aside and truly reckon with the lackluster quality of this special. Despite its earnest emotions, it has a clunky plot with dialogue that ranges from cheesy to cringey. Nearly every aspect of its production, from fight choreography to special effects, feels like it didn’t get the love and attention it deserved. It’s enough to make one question if it was made this way on purpose to channel the vibe of the original show, which was gleefully and pridefully corny. Perhaps it was. Maybe that’s all a feature, not a flaw. It’s tempting to wave all of these issues away by saying “that’s how Power Rangers is supposed to be,” but that’s not enough to shake the feeling that a special celebrating the legacy of Power Rangers deserved better than this.
Finally, it seems prudent to address the various issues that led to some strange elements in the story. For example, in a bizarre twist, Rita Repulsa returns as a robot, seemingly so she could be voiced by longtime Rita voice actress Barbara Goodson, who delivers her usual evil excellence. Also, the other original MMRP cast members were asked to reprise their roles (according to MMPR Pink Ranger actor Amy Jo Johnson) but because they declined, the reason the writers came up with for their absence is just silly.
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This did allow for Steve Cardenas to reprise his role as Red Ranger Rocky DeSantos and Catherine Sutherland as Pink Ranger Kat Hillard, and while it’s nice to see them in action again, unfortunately they don’t factor into the story much so they mostly serve to pad out the roster. It’s also worth noting that Once and Always was filmed before the passing of Green Ranger Tommy Oliver actor Jason David Frank last November, so as the special pays tribute to Trang’s Yellow Ranger it’s hard not to think of him, too.
This all boils down to a special that feels incomplete due to the missing cast members and also a bit unwieldy as the story contorts to deal with these various issues. Thankfully, its heart is in the right place, and it’s nice to see Billy and Zach elevated to leading roles.