Ninja Turtles, Eat Our Dust

Early one morning, on a warm Saturday in July, Michael Brant got a brainstorm. Why not take his 4-year-old, Travis, to see the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, appearing at a local south Florida mall? He didn't quite know what to expect, but he figured it would be a nice father-son experience. You know, have some fun. Do a little bonding. "Boy," he says now, "was I wrong."

Brant's day in hell began almost as soon as he buckled Travis into the family van. What would usually have been a five-minute drive took nearly an hour, thanks to the crush of traffic. The parking lot at the mall was full, so Brant ditched his car in a field half a mile away and hiked back. Inside, a stamping, clapping, churning mob of thousands surged around a stage where a pair of Rangers strutted to the thunderous theme song, "Go, Go Power Rangers!" Children shrieked in hysterical delight; adults, muttering in the heat and frustration, struggled to hold on to them. There was shoving, elbowing, even hair-pulling as Brant, tiny Travis perched on his shoulders, maneuvered near enough to snap a pix. He returned home late that afternoon, bruised and bedraggled with sweat. "What happened?" asked his wife. "War," he answered hoarsely, dropping into a chair. "We've been to war."

Once or twice every decade, a kid phenomenon sweeps the country. In the '80s it was the Cabbage Patch Kids. Then came Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now it's the Power Rangers, as any parent not living in Siberia knows. The craze blew out toy stores last Christmas -- and has grown bigger and wilder ever since. When the Fox network's live-action TV series debuted last fall, it quickly grabbed ratings among kids that only the Super Bowl (and maybe O. J. Simpson's murder trial) commands with adults. It also spawned one of the hottest merchandising bonanzas in years. Anything with a Rangers logo -- from books to plastic swords to action dolls and patterned underwear -- sells out as fast as retailers can stock it. Frustrated in their search for the coveted toys, many parents have lately taken to buying them at wildly inflated prices on a burgeoning black market -- or camping outside stores, waiting to get in. Is this a fad too hot not to cool down? Don't bet on it. Next summer Twentieth Century Fox comes out with the movie.

Adults are hard pressed to explain the Rangers' appeal. Certainly the plot line is cheesy at best. Every episode goes like this: Rita Repulsa, a horned witch who lives on the moon, dispatches her evil aliens to conquer the world. Only a troupe of clean-cut American teens -- four semi-hunks and two waiflike girls -- stand against her. At the moment of need they "morph" into kick-boxing superheroes in Spandex (or, better yet, robotized behemoths with names like Megazord and Titanus) and agilely whack, smack and thwack her buffoonish minions back to oblivion. If the antics remind you of B-grade Godzilla flicks, or if the bad guys appear to be mouthing something other than "Blast you, Rangers!" that's because they are. Most of the action sequences are taken straight from a long-running Japanese show, the "Zyu Rangers." Scenes of Americana are simply spliced in.

Clumsy as it may be, millions of children love it. Shown daily (except Sundays), the Power Rangers garner a whopping 57 percent share of the age-6-to-11 audience, according to Nielsens. PolyGram Video, one of 90 U.S. licensees, has sold nearly 8 million videotapes since Thanksgiving. Grosset & Dunlap, the kids' division of Putnam, moved more than a million copies of its first four Power Rangers novellas in just two weeks, mmwith eight more in the works. Fruit of the Loom has peddled nearly 7 million pairs of Rangers underwear since Februarymm. All told, industry analysts believe, sales of Ranger toys and other paraphernalia could approach $1 billion by next year -- what the Turtles generated at the peak of their popularity. Even Bandai America, the Power Rangers' official toymaker, can scarcely believe its success. "We were caught off guard," says marketing director Trish Stewart. The Japan-based company began the year with three plants; now 16 are churning out Ranger toys and still cannot keep up with demand.

It's a jungle out there, no doubt. When the Rangers appeared at Universal Studios in Hollywood, a record 35,000 people came -- snarling traffic for 10 miles. At a Los Angeles mall last Christmas 20 people queued up to meet Santa; the line to meet Tommy, the Green Ranger, reportedly stretched a quarter mile. Says Larry Wauchop, a Chicago banker who collects Ranger toys for his nephews and nieces: "People lunge after them like piranhas." They get into fights, rip open boxes of unshelved merchandise, run down the aisles. But it's worth it, he believes. If you return from the morphin wars bearing booty, "you're a hero" with your kids.

Woe betide the parent who falls short. Try telling your 8-year-old that he can't have his prized "Goldar," one of Repulsa's apelike thugs. Why? Because dopey Dad couldn't find one, or anything else. It's enough to drive any sane parent to extremes, explains Brad Grafton, a manager at Toys "R" Us in Joliet, Ill. Apart from the usual bribes, he remembers a man from Ohio, not long ago, who offered to fly to Chicago -- if only Grafton would save him a Power Ranger doll. (He wouldn't.) In Boston, moms hot on the Ranger trail are forging self-help networks -- working the phones, swapping intelligence about incoming shipments and bucking one another up when it all gets to be just too much. Not surprisingly, a black market in Rangerabilia has sprung up. Toys that normally retail for $10 are often scalped in the classifieds for as much as $65. The mania has prompted Toys "R" Us to limit sales; some stores will sell only one action toy to a family. "Other than the Cabbage Patch craze of '83," says the company's chief executive, Michael Goldstein, "I've never seen anything like this."

Will the frenzy let up? Bandai America keeps cranking up production, and sooner or later supply will meet demand. That should take some of the urgency out of the craze. Yet Ranger marketers are gearing up, too. A movie will give Power Rangers a tremendous boost, just as it did the Ninja Turtles. Meanwhile, the TV show is fast going global. Already it airs in 13 countries; by the middle of next year, it will be broadcast in 80. The question is how long the phenomenon can be stretched out. The show's Hollywood creator, an Egyptian-born movie producer and concert organizer named Haim Saban, thinks the Rangers will have a 10-year life -- and talks confidently of improving the series by introducing new characters and plot twists. "Isn't life wonderful?" he says, basking in his good fortune. If you're one of the lucky few selling the Rangers, absolutely. For the rest of us, just ask Michael Brant.