Five! Daaa! Four! Daaa! Three! Daaaa! Two! DAAA!
One…. BOOM! Thunderbirds are GO!
Probably one of the most memorable intros of any
kids TV show in the late 60 ’s, early 70’s, Thunderbirds was a cool
show: cool ships, cool heroes, great little stories, real Boys Own
Adventure stuff. Following the adventures of the Tracey Family and
their incredible machines soon evolved into cult viewing and, as such, it
still survives multiple repeat showings on TV around the globe.
In 1998 word got out that Working Title, with
then-director Peter Hewitt, was making a live action version of
Thunderbirds. Reaction was mixed, to say the least. Would the director
manage to capture the charm of the sixties original? Would the movie be
able to resist updating the iconic Thunderbird machines, or would it end
up with most of the mythos thrown out the window in favour of a complete
Batman style “reimagining”. Well, after numerous directorial changes, and
close on six years later, the movie is finally out.
The film lays out its stand out early as
unapologetically being a kids film, with some stylish yet silly opening
titles, very reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can. The movie is also
quick to inform the audience that it is not playing the movie po-faced and
straight. The story revolves around the youngest member of the Tracey
family, Alan (Brady Corbet), who yearns to be like his older brothers and
their astronaut father, Jeff (Bill Paxton), flying missions in the
Thunderbirds. When the evil Hood (Oscar winner Ben Kingsley) manages to
locate Tracey Island, he tricks the Tracey clan up into Thunderbird 5,
where they find themselves trapped. It falls to Alan, TinTin (Vanessa Anne
Hudgens) and the son of Brains, Fermat (Soren Fulton), to save the day,
before the Hood can use the Thunderbird machines for his diabolical
schemes. At the heart of the story is the now typical Disney style
schmaltzy moral fable of believing in yourself and your friends, and you
will get through anything, and this is probably the weakest point of the
film, but if you watch it with an understanding that it's a film squarely
aimed at the 8 to 10 age range, there’s still a wry smile to be had.
The direction, by Jonathan Frakes, is clearly Frakes
in the same mode as he employed for his film Clockstoppers, rather
than the more assured Frakes, who directed Star Trek: First Contact,
which means for all the clever, clever, frenetic camera work never really
engages you to the action. The story, by William Osborne and Peter Hewitt,
is nothing more than an extended episode of the TV series. Osborne’s
partner in the screenplay, Michael McCullers, who made his screenwriting
debut with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and also worked
on the second sequel Goldmember, throws in a few knowing
references and winks at the audience to at least keep the adults happy
while the kids go "Wow!" at the big spaceships.
The acting is something of a mixed bag too. Ben
Kingsley is clearly having fun with his panto-style histrionics and
glowering, as the Hood, and, in doing so, makes a passable, hiss-able villain.
Bill Paxton adds an extra layer of cheese to his role as Jeff Tracey,
billionaire Astronaut and successful father of five kids. It would be
easy to say that he is simply turning up to make the mortgage repayments,
except for the fact that his whiter-than-white hero fits in perfectly
with the futuristic retro style of the whole thing. Sophia Myles, last
seen in the appalling Underworld, makes an appealing Lady Penelope, mixing
James Bond-style super-spy by way of Liz Hurley’s turn as Vanessa
Kensington in Austin Powers, while, as Parker, Ron Cook works well as
Penelope's right-hand man. The young main cast acquit themselves well, but
with this being a kids film they fit in to all the kids movie stereotypes,
and so really have nothing more to do than conform to those stereotypes (the kid with glasses is brainy and can fix everything, yet is socially
awkward, while the blonde haired blue-eyed boy is the loner hero who
learns to needs his friends, and the girl provides the sassy tomboy-style vague love interest).
As for the actual Tracey Brothers, who fly the
Thunderbirds, they are given so little screen time that they may as well
not have been in the actual film. It's hard to tell them apart during the scenes with them
trapped in Thunderbird 5, and even harder to
care about their plight.
The soundtrack, by Hans Zimmer, is a mix of his work
on The Rock, with the occasional flash of the old brass sections of the
original series breaking through the techno cacophony, while the now-
obligatory remix of the original theme tune is bound to raise a few
hackles. The effects, by Framestore CFC, are really well done. In
the trailers one of the biggest things to come under criticism was the
fact that the CGI was very obvious, but now its clear that the work on the
Thunderbirds themselves is actually very good, and trailers be damned. The
style and the colour pallet of the world in which the film takes place is
very futuristic but in a retro 60’s style, which is a nice nod to the
original series. When the Thunderbirds are seen in context they work
very well indeed. The updates to the design are logical and, in feel at
least, keep the spirit of Derek Meddings' original craft.
final result is a strange brew. The film is clearly a kids film, but with its knowing moments it shows that it could
have clearly gone in to true tongue in cheek Austin Powers / Starsky and
Hutch territory, but in the end the pull of a potential franchise is what
guides the outcome, leaving those in the audience that expected a loving
homage sadly disappointed, and those expecting a full blown action movie
also disappointed. Its very easy to criticise Thunderbirds for being childish, and aiming squarely for the happy meal brigade, but we have to remember that while we, as fans, have grown up, the actual target audience will never grow up.
After all, Thunderbirds is
shown on kids TV, which should tell you something. The 25 to
35 year old Thunderbirds faithful may come away from this movie feeling
like an opportunity has been squandered, but the kids, who are the
real fans now, will come away from this film loving it.
Rating 3 out of 5 (although deduct a point if you
hated Spy Kids)