Thunderbirds

on July 30, 2004 by Wade Major
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When British television producer Gerry Anderson and then-wife Sylvia debuted the sci-fi-fangled puppetry of "Supermarionation" in 1959 with "Supercar," a bona-fide phenomenon was born. More than a half-dozen series using the technique would be produced over the course of the next decade, including the landmark "Fireball XL5" and the most popular of them all, "Thunderbirds." In the '70s the Andersons would turn their futuristic hardware fetish to live-action fare like "UFO" and "Space: 1999," but fan-base loyalty to "Thunderbirds," which ran for two seasons and produced two feature films in the mid-to-late '60s, would continue to grow.

It's clear that the perceived strength of that fan base is what prompted Universal to make a live-action version of "Thunderbirds," faithfully following the format of the original show's premise centering on ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and the International Rescue operation he runs with his five sons. Based at a secret South Pacific island, the Tracys employ three rocketships, a space station and a small submarine--the so-called Thunderbirds--to swoop in like space-age cavalry and forestall calamity anywhere on the globe. Like all heroes, however, they have an arch-nemesis: the psychically-gifted Hood (Sir Ben Kingsley), who hatches a plot to strand the Tracys in space while he takes control of their island and two of the Thunderbirds. Fortunately, the Hood hasn't counted on the resourcefulness of teenagers--impetuous youngest son Alan Tracy, his friend Fermat (Soren Fulton), son of the Tracys' brilliant engineer Brains (Anthony Edwards), and courageous Tin-Tin, daughter of the island's faithful caretakers.

The problem with "Thunderbirds" is not that Universal has failed in their balancing act, but that they have attempted a balancing act at all. Aiming to please both adult fans of the original series and children weaned on more contemporary gadget-fare like the "Spy Kids" and the "Cody Banks" movies, they've created a kind of Frankenstein monster that ends up pleasing neither. The nostalgic references will be lost on children while the adolescent obviousness of the script will almost certainly alienate adults. Transporting the Thunderbird universe into a live-action environment does wonders for special effects and production value, but precious little for the characters, most of whom seem more puppet-like in the flesh than their '60s counterparts. Director Jonathan Frakes is an easy target for blame here--his previous "Spy Kids" knockoff, "Clockstoppers," was similarly lead-footed in concept and execution--though in fairness one has to admit that Frakes is really doing his level best with a horribly ill-conceived concept.

Lackluster as it is, "Thunderbirds" does have some saving graces, namely the adorable Sophia Myles as the Tracys' trusty aide-de-camp, the ultra-ladylike British superspy Lady Penelope. With her souped-up pink flying car and lovable cockney chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook), she brings light, hope and happiness to every frame of the film that she's in. Ben Kingsley's Hood is equally delicious, albeit in a more diabolical way--a flawless splice of villainy and cartoonishness. Starring Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Brady Corbet, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Soren Fulton, Anthony Edwards and Sophia Myles. Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by William Osborne and Michael McCullers. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Mark Huffam. A Universal release. Family/Adventure. Rated PG for intense action sequences and language. Running time: 87 min

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