Dir. Jonathan Frakes. US. 2004. 90 min.
Thunderbirds, the 1960s UK television series starring action-hero marionettes and model rockets, has been given the big-screen, live-action tween treatment, and the result is a bouncing colourful kid-friendly romp. That it is entirely unrecognisable from the series is beside the point. It's a triumph of brand-building that should establish a franchise: if not on the scale of Harry Potter, a tidy money-spinner.
A $100m domestic take is a foregone conclusion and the merchandising machinery is set to pump out a huge number of plastic toys. Indeed, following the world premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival audience members each received a Thunderbird toy. In Japan, where bulbous turtle-like T2 is an icon in its own right, film and toys will do a roaring trade. The only question mark hangs over the UK, where sky high projections may be slightly dented by poor word-of-mouth. Extreme fans of the series will have to see it but those with fond memories may be unwilling to put up the pounds to be disappointed. For disappointed they will be.
Briefly, Thunderbirds are the specialised craft of International Rescue, headed by billionaire former astronaut Jeff Tracy and manned by his all-male clan, each of whom is named for a genuine US astronaut. Based on Tracy Island, they zoom around the Earth circa 2065, backed up Brains, the headquarter's boffin, and by Lady Penelope, an aristocratic English secret agent, and Parker, the chauffeur of her pink limousine. Their habitual nemesis is called The Hood and he tends to laugh maniacally.
If Working Title, who brought the project with them from the ashes of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment ever considered tapping nostalgia for the TV series, their studios bosses at Universal over-rode any such notion. As Working Title's Tim Bevan told Screen International last summer during production, "We knew we had to lose the puppets."
This is Thunderbirds for a new generation, and no looking back. Following the proven model of Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks, the focus in on two essentially new characters: the tween team of Alan Tracy (Corbet), the youngest of the clan, here recast as a troubled school boy, and Fermat (Fulton), the son of Brains. As for Jeff and the older Tracys, they're sent into outer space for the duration of the film.
It seems the Hood (Kingsley) has designs on T2, and its cargo, a tunneling machine seemingly tailor-made for attacking bank vaults. From his submarine he fires a missile at the earth-orbiting T5, crippling it. Naturally, the IR team scrambles to the rescue leaving befuddled Brains (Edwards) and Tracy Island undefended. But he wasn't counting on the plucky boys and the gamine Tin Tin (Hudgens). The trio run around the tropical isle distracting the Hood from his plans, buying time for the trapped Team Tracy and bickering about leadership issues. Lady Penelope (Myles) and her driver Parker (Cook) come to help but are easily subdued. Not to worry: everyone just as easily escapes.
As filmed entertainment, Thunderbirds falls short of the Spy Kids model. Yes, it has the gadgets that kids dream of flying and the oozey, gooey slime that replaces blood in sub-teen action films. But where Spy Kids's director Robert Rodriguez injected a sense of fun and derring-do, here director Jonathan Frakes betrays no sense of pace, no feel for dramatic tension. And there's nothing for adults to connect with: there are no lines to read between. The script dabbles in some son- versus-father conflict a la Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker when The Hood attempts to convince Alan that his father purposely let Mrs. Tracy die. But there is no backstory to make his sinister appeal plausible nor does the action pause long enough for young Corbet to ponder it. There isn't a moment of sincerity or genuine feeling in the entire film.
Technically, it gets the job done, with a nice retro 60s look - even though the date has been scaled down from 2065 to the near-future. Re-fashioned for the new generation, the CGI Thunderbird craft aren't perfect but the look lends itself to the cartoon feeling of the whole. But a key fight scene matching Lady P and Parker against the Hood's henchpersons is poorly choreographed and has little coverage. The climax is literally interrupted by a rescue sequence that has more to do with providing screen-time for the submersible T4 than furthering the story. It's a slippery slope when merchandising trumps plot.
One can only wish that the same effort expended on re-imagining the toys was applied to the story and characters. While the new film's DVD and TV prospects are a given - no doubt success will spawn a Next Generation Thunderbirds seires, it's hard to imagine contemporary kids growing up and looking back on this material with the same fondness their parents' generation regard the original series.
Prod cos: Working Title, Universal Studios, Studio Canal
Worldwide dist: Universal
Prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam
Scr: William Osborne, Michael McCullers
Cine: Brendan Galvin, Shaun O'Dell
Prod des: John Beard
Ed: Martin Walsh
Mus: Ramin Djawadi, James Michael Dooley, Hans Zimmer.
Main cast: Brady Corbet,Bill Paxton,Ben Kingsley Soren Fulton, Sophia Myles, Anthony Edwards, Ron Cook, Vanessa Anne Hudgens