Poor Patrick Smash was born with a problem: a gas problem. You see, he has two stomachs, and his overactive digestion produces an excess amount of colon blow. From the time he was an infant to his current pre-teen years, Patrick has been one incredibly farty fiend. He farts day and night. He farts in school. He farts in private. And it’s caused him nothing but trouble. His father leaves the family because of it. The bullies pick on him over his continuous crack coughs. Even the teachers dismiss the needy child on account of his active ass. But when our sad little lad meets up with science geek Alan A. Allen, the two become best friends for life.
Unfortunately, their camaraderie is challenged when the U.S. government whisks Alan off to help with a space station malfunction. Hoping to locate his pal, Patrick joins up with an opera singer who wants to use the boy’s butthole as a means of obtaining vocal heights (don’t ask). When that ends badly, our poot prodigy winds up in the hands of Uncle Sam as well. Turns out, his tushy produces the perfect rocket fuel to send Alan’s specially designed rocket into the stratosphere. Even better, Patrick will be able to live out his lifelong dream - he has always wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad his Thunderpants kept getting in the way. Now, for once, they won’t.
Thunderpants is a one-joke movie that decides to abandon said gag about 20 minutes in for some routine Roald Dahl-like misadventures. When focused on the farting - yes, this film is really just an extended barking spider spoof with half-baked kid-lit fantasies thrown in for unequal measure—the movie mostly works. But once it decides to warm to the whimsy, everything falls apart. Granted, the humor is coarse, and forced through a decidedly British concept of comedy, meaning there’s lots of personal embarrassment and exaggerated freakishness to be found. This is the kind of film that wants audiences to laugh at oversized bullies cold-cocking the decidedly dorky heroes, to celebrate the inhuman stench coming out of a little boy’s bottom, and cheer as he uses his multifaceted flatulence to show up his enemies and win the day.
Such a concept is not without its charms. When handled correctly, the air biscuit can be a beautiful thing. Its combination of sound and sour substance has been known to leave many a listener doubled over in uncontrollable snickering. It’s the pre-schoolers’ first foray into funny business, an art form to adolescents, an adult’s primary form of non-erotic bonding, and the elderly’s personal entertainment element for the grandkids. But here, writer/director Peter Hewitt (working with co-writer Phil Hughes) decides to do away with the butt trumpet early on, focusing instead on a bizarre opera singer subplot, and then the movie’s main mission, using poor Patrick Smash’s overactive alimentary canal as a means of saving some space shuttle astronauts. With Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint along as uber-nerd Alan A. Allen, we’re stuck with not one but three storylines that basically don’t work.
Let’s take them one at a time, shall we. First, there is Patrick Smash’s personal predicament. Granted, it’s pretty hysterical when an infant version of our hero basically blasts away for 10 minutes straight. From the moment he’s born to the second his father leaves, tired of putting up with the nonstop sphincter popping, Hewitt has us in toilet-humor titters. But like many English fantasies, things turn dark rather quickly. Mom starts pounding the sauce, and the school tormenters go to outrageous extremes to undermine Patrick. After a while - the aforementioned 20 minutes - Thunderpants is no longer funny. It’s sad, dour, and kind of cruel.
Even when Patrick discovers Alan (a boy who can tolerate his toots because of a defective nose), their friendship is fragile and very desperate. It makes us wonder what will happen next - and then the singer storyline kicks in. Embodied by U.K. luminary Simon Callow, this oversized vocal egotist employs Patrick to hit the high notes in an impossible aria, the goal being international acclaim and the title of world’s number-one tenor. Naturally, it makes no sense, as does our lead’s ability to fart like a singing voice (where’s La Petomane when you need him?). But things really go out of whack when Patrick is charged with murder - huh? - and ends up on trial. The courtroom material is not clever, and wastes the sizable talents of Brit wit Stephen Fry. Before we know it, however, the U.S. government is stepping in, and Patrick is off to lend his anal gas to the Red, White, and Blue.
It’s the transition over to action man mode than really fails Thunderpants. We discover that Alan has been working on an engine which mimics Patrick’s two-stomach situation, but thanks to some bumbling adults (the research staff of this NASA-like agency is all brainiac kids), the system has failed. So Mr. Russet Gusset must sit in a toilet-like booster seat on the space shuttle and literally “blast” the rocket into orbit. This is all taken with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, mind you. Ned Beatty plays the God-fearing director of the agency, his occasionally inappropriate remarks (“this boy’s a fruit,” “this boy’s a tool”) explained away as misconstrued religious musings. He’s matched in shame by Paul Giamatti, skinnier than we’ve seen him in a while (the film is five years old, after all) and doing the straight-laced secret agent bit to the 40th degree.
Of course, everything is warm and fuzzy - and apparently quite odiferous - in the end, with our hated human oddities the celebrated saviors of the day, and everyone who ever wronged them gathered up for a pre-credit grab at a piece of the pair’s fame. The unsuccessful melding of the sentimental with the slapstick, the sincere with the scatological makes Thunderpants nearly impossible to enjoy. In fact, it’s so mannered in its presentation (Patrick overuses certain supposedly clever catchphrases over and over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine kids being the least bit interested - at least, after the ass-gas blasting takes a bum burp backseat.