Reviewed by Lee Medcalf

Director:  Jonathan Frakes

Starring:  Brady Corbet, Bill Paxton. Soren Fulton, Ben Kingsley, Ron Cook

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.

The 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)











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