Directed by: Jonathan Frakes
Starring: Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Brady Corbet, Anthony Edwards, Sophia Myles, Ron Cook
I'm not surprised that the original "Supermarionation" puppet show Thunderbirds is utterly unknown to kids today -- making the rationale for this movie's very existence a bit vague. Yet I am surprised by how very few people in my own age group (and beyond) seem to know of it.
Roger Ebert goes so far as to claim, "I had never heard of the series, and, let's face it, neither have you." I beg to differ, since I've not only heard of it, but I've heard of the three (!) series that preceded it. The shows -- British in origin -- were the brainchildren of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and were based on a process that supposedly allowed the marionettes' mouths to be in "perfect" synchronization with the actors speaking the roles (thus, "Supermarionation").
Gerry Anderson got his start directing a couple of late-'50s puppet shows, The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy, the Battery Boy -- both of which probably have their roots in the BBC's truly strange The Flowerpot Men, a puppet series featuring ... well, Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, who were very popular with children, but were forced off the air due to concerns that their nonsense "language" was detrimental to the development of proper speech in British children. (I am not making this up.) The Andersons came into their own in 1960 with Supercar (always my favorite of their shows), following that up with Fireball XL5 (the only of the Anderson series to be picked up by a United States TV network) and Stingray. These shows proved popular in syndication on American television and led to the more ambitious (relatively speaking) Thunderbirds, which proved the most enduring of Anderson's puppet creations. (The Andersons are probably best known now for Space: 1999.)
Thunderbirds, in fact, has already spawned two feature films: Thunderbirds Are GO! (in 1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). Yet both the shows and the movies are -- to put it mildly -- quaint. Aimed squarely at pre-teen boys, they're mostly of interest today to middle-aged folks who remember them from childhood. That perhaps explains why Tim Bevan's Working Title Films -- usually associated with things like Love Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary -- opted to turn the old show into a feature. Bevan would have been just the right age for Thunderbirds when it was new.
However, that does nothing to explain the reasoning for making the film not with puppets but with live actors (though in Bill Paxton's case, it's hard to be sure), except as yet another lame attempt to tap into the box-office generated by Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids movies. In fact, that probably does explain it -- as well as being the reason that the resulting film lands with a dull thud in between nostalgia and the wit of the Rodriguez franchise (well, at least the first two entries).
Truth to tell, Thunderbirds isn't a bad evocation of the old TV show. Still, with its accent on the boy hero Alan (Brady Corbet, who looks like a pinup out of Tiger Beat) and his chums, it tends to junk the feel of the originals in favor of the, yep, Spy Kids dynamic. And we've been there before -- with a lot more wit and style than this film can muster. What we're left with is a kiddie-level sci-fi crime caper that at least pays homage to its source in terms of look (production design is first-rate in a deliberately cheesy manner) and in the inclusion of the Thunderbirds theme.
Apart from that, the film doesn't offer much beyond the lip-smacking villainy of The Hood, (a kimono-clad Ben Kingsley wearing lot of eye shadow), the story's arch-villain who wants revenge on Jeff Tracy (Paxton) and plans on getting it by using the Thunderbirds' own rocketships to rob the world's great banks, plunge everything into monetary chaos and pin the heists on Tracy and company. Kingsley at least appears to be having a very good time winking at the audience as he revels in his character's dire deeds. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast seem either awkward or bored by it all. Paxton, in particular, is as wooden as the puppet that originally played Tracy.
OK, so the film is not flat-out ghastly, but neither is it especially good. It's too nostalgia-based to appeal much to youngsters, and it strays too far from the original puppet concept to exactly delight fans of the show (a shot or two of actors with wires attached and a reference to "pulling the strings" hardly qualifies as much of an allusion).
It's something of a feat to miss two target audiences with one movie, but that may just be Thunderbirds main claim to fame.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke