Thunderbirds (2004)


In the 1960s, Gerry Anderson pioneered “supermarionation,” and honed it to perfection with the marionettes used in his children’s television series, Thunderbirds. Originally airing in the U.K. from 1964-1966, the series also spawned two successful feature films, Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1967). Although the series was short-lived, it has since become something of a cult phenomenon.

Jonathan Frakes’ live action feature film of Thunderbirds follows in the footsteps of the many recent dismal film translations of favorite tv shows, like Lost in Space (1998) and Scooby-Doo (2002). Here the problem is compounded by the fact that few members of the target audience (kids) are even aware of the original series. In fact, the preview screening was far from filled, and those children present seemed bored by the whole affair. Most of the audible response was from adults like me, snickering at corny dialogue like, “Saving lives is dangerous business, but it’s what we do.”

The only possible reason I can see for this screen version is the marketing opportunities embodied by the Thunderbirds themselves (the Tracy boys, who make up the “International Rescue” squad) and their “super-advanced technology” ships and gadgets. In what appears to be a post-9/11 bubble, “rescue hero” action figures have become all the rage among the pre-and elementary school set. This is especially true for young boys, like my nephew, who has quite an array of Fisher-Price’s “Rescue Heroes” line, and insists I play with them every time I visit.

While Thunderbirds is marginally successful, visually, in appealing to little boys’ (and perhaps, girls’) altruistic fantasies, there is precious little in the story to keep them interested for very long. The film details the lives of the fabulous Tracys, who, under the direction of their “billionaire ex-astronaut” father, Jeff (Bill Paxton), jet around the world helping people in distress. All except the youngest Tracy, Allan (Brady Corbet), who can only dream, while stuck in school, of the day he too will be a member of the team.

The problem is that Allan’s grades are failing, due to his moony-eyed inability to concentrate on anything but his future life as a Thunderbird. And even though he assures dad when on spring break at the family’s “secret island in the South Pacific” that he’s ready to join up, Jeff tells him that for the team members there are “no shortcuts,” so he’d better start focusing on his education. You can see where this is going from a mile off. Allan must establish his independence from his stern daddy, and demonstrate in the process that he is mature and smart enough to handle the pressures of Thunderbird-hood. To facilitate this family drama, the film introduces “The Hood” (played by Ghandi, I mean Ben Kingsley, in a creepy, vaguely racist, Ming the Merciless mode).

Just so, The Hood lures the Thunderbirds away from their island base in order to steal their toys, use them to rob the world’s banks, thus destabilizing the world economy, and blame it all on the good guys. This leaves, conveniently Allan and his two friends, Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of the team’s tech-guy Brains (Anthony Edwards, recycling his Revenge of the Nerds [1984] shtick), and Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), daughter of the family’s groundskeeper (Bhasker Patel) alone on the island to save the day. What follows is a series of by-the-book action sequences that move Allan and company closer to saving the day, while learning the value of teamwork, to boot. It’s giving absolutely nothing away to add that Allan does triumph over The Hood, prove himself to daddy, and become a full-fledged member of the Thunderbirds.

The film is a terribly laddish affair, though Thunderbirds does include precisely three female characters (unless you count the Tracys’ repeatedly referenced dead wife and mother). The Hood’s counterpart for Brains is Transom (Rose Keegan), as peripheral to the story as the Tracys’ Brains, and predictably roped into a “romance” with him. An ally of the Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope Creighton Ward (Sophia Myles), is a British Secret Agent; the problem with Lady P, despite the fact that she can kick ass (and gets exactly one chance to do so), is that her life is entirely pink, from her every outfit, to every detail of her manor, to her jet-powered, flying roadster.

By far the best thing about the film is the third girl, Tintin. She’s the most well developed character, and is helped in this by Hudgens’ fine performance. The fact that both she and Allan are just past puberty adds some erotic tension, providing the film’s few charming and funny moments. Early on, Fermat observes, awkwardly, that Tintin seems to be “blossoming,” to which Allan assents. When Allan later flirtatiously repeats this to Tintin, she stops him short, incredulously: “Did you just say ‘blossoming’?” Right on, sister.

Tintin’s own special powers seem conjured out of a straight adolescent boy’s perspective — she can manipulate material objects with her mind. She’s all feminine super-nature to Allan’s masculine super-technology. Yet despite Tintin’s obvious power and talents this is the boys’ story in the end, and especially Allan’s. While the Tracy boys are certainly pretty enough to watch for 90 minutes, you can’t help but wish Tintin had more to do, or that the Thunderbirds would go back to their island paradise home and let her handle the rough stuff.

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