July 26th, 2004
“Thunderbirds” is the big screen adaptation of a 1960s television show that featured marionettes and lo-fi adventure. So how do the filmmakers spruce up the franchise for today’s kids? By replacing all the puppets and using the “Spy Kids” franchise as their guide. A good looking, but ultimately misguided production, “Thunderbirds are go” again, but will the kids care?
Billionaire Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton, in basically a cameo) is the founder of International Rescue, a team comprised of his heroic family who fly around the world in futuristic machines they call Thunderbirds, and save people from harm. When an entity known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley) attempts to hijack the Thunderbirds to use them for his evil plans, the Tracys soon find themselves stranded in outer space. Only the youngest member of the family, Alan (Brady Corbet, “Thirteen”), and his two friends (Soren Fulton and Vanessa Anne Hudgens) are left to save the day, calling in a family friend, Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), for help.
It’s one thing to turn animated television shows into feature films, like “Scooby-Doo,” where the appeal lies beyond the painted frame, and has the ability to tap into something else. On the other hand, the 1960s series “Thunderbirds” had the reputation of being a mediocre adventure show, only remaining an irresistible curiosity because it was performed entirely with marionettes. So it makes sense to completely drop the puppet element for the new feature film adaptation, right?
Besides potty humor, the biggest irritant found in family films is their often tenacious grip on formulas and trends. It took about ten full years for Hollywood to get “Home Alone” out of its system, and once the “Spy Kids” franchise took off in 2001, forget it; it’s going to be another ten years before we see the last of cute kids using gadgets and tomfoolery to elude trouble. “Thunderbirds are go” again in 2004 purely because of the Robert Rodriguez trilogy, and the filmmakers aren’t too concerned with hiding their theft.
The plot for the new “Thunderbirds” is basically a larger-scale replica of “Spy Kids,” again removing the experienced secret agent adults from the picture for most of the film so the kids alone can rise to the challenge and learn some valuable lessons, as well as use neato gadgets to save the world. It’s tiring to see such larceny, especially when the series itself focused on multigenerational teamwork and family to build adventure. “Thunderbirds” is aimed squarely at 8 year-olds, which in and of itself isn’t an evil thing, but the story could’ve used a fresh coat of paint. However, lackluster director Jonathan Frakes (“Star Trek: Insurrection,” “Clockstoppers”) just can’t be bothered to color outside the lines even a smidge to add some oxygen to the proceedings, which flirts with pointless slapstick and cartoon sound effects to fill up an entirely too long running time of 85 minutes.
What the new “Thunderbirds” does have in its favor is a considerable budget to sell the often elaborate and beautiful primary colored CGI that litters the film, including the visualization of the Tracys’ secret South Pacific island hideout, which looks lovely. There’s also a dash of grand acting talent to help cauterize the wounds left behind by some of the shrill pre-teen acting found here. Ben Kingsley seems to be having a ball as The Hood, reveling in the film’s highly stylized approach and the chance to make a film that his grandchildren could see. I also enjoyed Sophia Myles’s elegant touch on Lady Penelope, adding a dash of English class to a role that isn’t clearly explained to the audience, unless you’re a diligent student of “Thunderbirds” lore. As Jeff Tracy, either Bill Paxton is doing his best to mimic the marionette style of acting with his wooden approach, or he’s just having a bad day on the job. I couldn’t tell.
Scored with gusto by Hans Zimmer, and featuring a sparkling set design by John Beard, “Thunderbirds” is actually very entertaining when it settles down in full-on adventure mode. But Frakes doesn’t trust himself, and tries too hard to fit the weird motifs of the classic “Thunderbirds” series into a modern family film execution. What’s here is promising, but if the Thunderbirds decide to “go” again, the filmmakers should involve the whole family, the way this story was intended to be.
My rating: C+