Toys from TV's tacky 'Morphin Power Rangers' are the season's surprise smash

Forget Barney. The hottest toys of the Christmas season are the colorful, otherworldly action figures based on the mega-hit Fox kids’ show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A cheesy, live-action cross between Godzilla and Beverly Hills, 90210, Morphin uses footage from a Japanese sci-fi series and splices it together with scenes featuring five American teenagers so clean-cut and ethnically diverse they could have stepped out of a Benetton ad.

On the surface, the Rangers seem like an average cross section of America’s youth: One’s a nerd, one’s a jock, one’s Miss Popularity — you get the picture. They all like pop music and shopping malls, wear trendy threads, and hang out at a youth center called the Gym and Juice Bar. But when the evil empress Rita Repulsa and her mutant cohorts stir up trouble — in badly dubbed, made-in-Japan sequences — it’s morphin’ time. With a magical assist from the five Coins of Power (don’t ask), Zack, Kimberly, Jason, Trini, and Billy transform themselves into the Day-Glo-costumed, karate-kicking Rangers. And when extra power is needed, the Rangers are able to summon up five Dino Zords (robotized dinosaurs), who can also interlock into a single, towering Mega-Zord that squares off in explosive battle with whatever ultravillains Rita conjures up. Got that?

The Mighty Morphin exploits have generated a pop-culture rage that has millions of parents shaking their heads in disbelief — both at how tacky the show is and at how much their kids love it. Since its debut in September, Mighty Morphin has quickly taken shape as the top-rated TV show on weekdays and Saturday mornings among children ages 2 to 11. And Fox has just committed to 60 more episodes — following an initial first-season order of 40.

But don’t expect Mighty Morphin to limit its exposure to the small screen. “Almost every studio in town is willing to make a (movie) production commitment,” claims Haim Saban, 49, chairman of the eponymous American company that coproduces the series with Japan’s Toei Company.

As you’d probably expect, each member of the cast is young, cute, and still basically unknown. For the record, their names are Amy Jo Johnson (Kimberly), Walter Jones (Zack), Austin St. John (Jason), Thuy Trang (Trini), and David Yost (Billy). A Fox publicist laments that the series’ tight production / schedule doesn’t allow time for sending the neophyte performers on tour à la the Ninja Turtles or Tiffany: “I know they could fill those shopping malls.” It doesn’t matter. Morphin merchandise has already done the same thing.

The toys, in fact, have become the hands-down hit of the holiday season. A New York Times columnist recently recounted her unsuccessful three-week quest to track down the toys for her son. At the two Toys ‘R’ Us stores in Wichita, Kan., a sign reading “We’re sorry we’re so hard to get” has been posted over empty shelves where the toys were supposed to be. “They’re the Cabbage Patch dolls of 1993,” says Jeff Kilian, toy collector and coauthor of Tomart’s Price Guide to G.I. Joe Collectibles.