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The ITC Thunderbirds TV show was a minor success story that rode on the wave of 60s British popularity. By mixing film and television technology, the husband-wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson created adventure series like Supercar and Fireball XL-5 that were enormously popular around the globe. There was always a big juvenile interest in "boys with toys" entertainment that had previously been tapped by Japanese monster and science fiction movies. Films like The Mysterians and TV series like the Andersons' Thunderbirds were like watching one's fantasy Dinky toys and plastic rocketships come to life, and the miniature settings were far better than any kid's train set or hobby kit.
The UK TV success of Thunderbirds disappointingly did not transfer to America, where it was syndicated instead of being picked up by a major network. United Artists nevertheless commissioned a pair of feature films based on the Tracy family's fantastic stable of futuristic rescue vehicles. Simply by switching over to the then-popular Techniscope format, the Andersons were able to continue their tradition of expert microphotography in the anamorphic realm, and their amusing "Supermarionation" credit was transferred to the big screen.
Thunderbirds Are Go enlarges the scope of the television show to a trip to Mars and provides a full workout for the flying tanks and rockets based on the Tracys' tropical island. The entire Anderson empire was clearly a family affair and shows the strengths and weaknesses inherent in such companies. The craft and ingenuity put into the built-from-scratch visuals and effects is remarkable, and the work of effects whiz Derek Meddings is so good that many illusions are better than the standard in live action films of the time. 1
However, keeping all the creative functions to one's self isn't always a good idea and the big-screen Thunderbirds scripts are almost purposely corny and trite, as if the key to Batman-like camp success were to just be mediocre and keep one's chin up. Dialogue is sincere and flat and almost completely expository in nature, just there to explain the parade of gadgets.
The lumpy story makes International Rescue an ancillary plot thread to a Mars Mission we don't really care about, and as usual the only character allowed the least flexibility is the writer-producer's own alter-ego, Lady Penelope. While the velvet-voiced femme superspy in the pink Rolls Royce has all the fun, the interchangeable Tracy brothers have little to do except sit, stand and ride amusing contraptions designed to relieve them of the need to walk. The exception is the youngest brother, who imagines a fantasy (within a fantasy) dream where "Cliff Richard Jr." sings a groaner called Shooting Star in a space nightclub right out of The Jetsons. 2
Thunderbirds Are Go plays well with nostalgic adults today who hoot and holler like we did at kiddie shows in the 1950s. For all its shortcomings - no real story or emotional center - the film generates a good silly suspense, and the miniature world of constant jeopardy and exploding chaos is an oddly accurate view of modern life. It's pushbutton luxury and Piña Coladas, until all hell breaks loose and everything is blown to smithereens. One wonders why everyone's so ecstatic about the rescue of the Zero X crew, when the falling ship appears to strike a sizeable community, wiping out thousands of innocent people. And where's the Dirtybirds spin-off show, the one charting the exploits of the lowly ordinary folk who clean up the devastion brought on by the Tracys' "rescues?" I guess International Rescue is located on a secret island to avoid lawsuits.
Thunderbirds Are Go is given enthusiastic support by MGM's lush special edition. The new enhanced transfer is crystal clear with good color and few scratches or other signs of age, and the orgy of rocket blasts and colorful explosions fills the room with the kind of blow-it-up pre-sexual overkill that little boys and many fathers love. The remixed 5.1 track is in Dolby and DTS and augments the effects with more discretion than is usual.
Sylvia Anderson and David Lane provide a commentary that's pleasant and informative, although hardcore Supermarionation fans won't learn anything new. The three featurettes present different aspects of the show with the same interview subjects, augmented by Mary Turner, an original 'puppet coordinator' and Richard Holliss, a fan spokesman. There's also a musical montage of stills, the original trailer and an activity called "Who Said That?" Since I cannot place a lookalike Tracy face with a Tracy name, I'm not going to do too well in that game.
Thunderbird Six appears to have been made to fulfill the UA contract after the broadcast version had ceased production. The Andersons had already moved on to newer TV shows and their first live-action spectacle Doppelganger, aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Released from the pressure to film Bigger and Better Explosions by the relative boxoffice failure of the first film, they go off on a completely new direction with a story that has equal appeal to lovers of dolls and miniature doll houses.
The plot uncomfortably resembles the 9/11 terror raids - a monstrous airship is seized by mysterious hijackers, here personified by a nefarious dark-skinned Eastern malefactor, the same one that gave the TV show a racist tone whenever ill-defined bad guys were needed. Stills (that can be seen in the films extras) show cut scenes of the Black Phantom in his lair, which resembles the temple of an Eastern cult. In a now-eerie scene, Sky Ship One cruises majestically past the Statue of Liberty.
That not-particularly-PC Asian bad guy is mostly sidelined in favor of the smooth and personality-free anglo puppet characters that the Andersons made famous. 3 This time the screenplay concentrates on character more than action, but only Lady Penelope is able to take center stage. The need for an occasional change of facial expression shows the painful limitations of the marionette process. The puppets always looked slightly sinister to Savant, and when they "change heads" to show exaggerated laughing faces, the effect is disturbingly bizarre.
Otherwise, the round-the-world cruise allows for some colorful, stereotyped peeks at foreign locales and famous sights, all recreated in cute miniatures perhaps saved from earlier TV episodes. Director Lane uses cutaways to avoid having to show scenes of puppets in motion, not an easy thing to do when one wants to dramatize a running gun battle on a runaway airship. The bad guys capture Penelope and her IR (International Rescue, not Internal Revenue) allies and tie them up, so as better to explain to them their evil aims. Naturally, the limitations of the technique require Lane to cut away until the heroes are all bound to the ship's levitation apparatus, whereupon the bad guy Foster says "You are now my prisoners!" in case there are some blind viewers in the audience. 4
Making the top secret new IR vehicle Thunderbird 6 a (spoiler! spoiler!) simple 1920s biplane provides an interesting change from the futuristic hardware, a distinction that Thunderbirds fans weren't likely to appreciate. Although there's a battle in an African desert (our trusty IR lads open fire with massive cannons on the pitifully-outgunned hostiles) and another calamitous circus of explosions for a finish, a lot of Thunderbird 6 hangs around various castles and doll-house style dialogue scenes. Chances are the little girls didn't want to see Lady Penelope's tea party any more than the boys did.
The use of a biplane cues a lot of live action footage that looks just fine yet breaks the spell of the Andersons' hermetically-sealed and hand crafted miniature world. One could envision later TV and computer technology enabling live action characters to be inserted into the clever miniature settings and vehicles, but modern movies have already leapfrogged that by skipping all the time-consuming real model work in favor of a computer generated universe - people, backgrounds and hardware. The Thunderbirds canon is still fun to contemplate because of the artisanship that went into it. Somewhere in England a little family of underpaid craftspeople created their own world of magic, and that's the appeal.
Thunderbird Six receives equal treatment in both transfer (enhanced Techniscope) and audio (DTS and Dolby) on its MGM DVD. The three featurettes on this one are different and concentrate on the Lady Penelope character and the film's biplane. The game this time is called "Craft Mission Match-Up."
The two films are available separately but MGM has paired them in a gift set at no extra expense. The shiny new box looks like something a nifty 60s toy would come in, and there are punch-out ship activities and punch-out refrigerator magnets. Savant recommends having an adult remove the false back paper insert - it's attached with a couple of dabs of rubber cement and a tot trying to pry it loose might rip the punch-out card. Careful when opening the package too, as the punch-out card is exposed on the outside.
A final paper insert is a plug for a CD of Barry Gray's cute music score, with its rousing march theme ... the one that's hard to get out of one's head. 5
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thunderbirds Are Go rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thunderbird 6 rates:
Packaging: Two Keep cases in card box with toy extras
1. Sylvia Anderson was
approached by Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey but didn't get involved; Derek
Meddings later had his feature chance with expert minature effects work on several James Bond films, creating
many underwater views and miniature explosions that are nigh undetectable. Meddings was a hero to
my boss on 1941, effects miniature maker Gregory Jein.
2. This observation is probably in poor taste, but Savant always thought it suspicious that
the Tracys were rarely seen to walk or move about under their own power, as if they were really all
paraplegics! Actually, the limitations of marionette work required direction geared around this lack
of mobility. This gives the shows an odd cutting pattern that director David Lane sometimes seems
to be trying to make fun of ... but not very successfully.
3. I've always thought that the good actor Derren Nesbitt
(Where Eagles Dare, Victim)
looked exactly like an
Anderson puppet creation. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore did a reportedly perfect live-action takeoff
on the Thunderbirds as a television sketch. The new live-action Thunderbirds movie
(that motivated this DVD release) seems more a variation on Spy Kids than anything to do
with the TV original.
4. The ship's anti-gravity apparatus is knocked out during the gunfight.
So why does the Skyship stay aloft? Or did I misread the film and it's really a balloon? The ship
looks like a big fat silver cigarette case, but is more interesting than the unwieldy Zero X from
the first feature.
5. Hey, it's really F.A.B.! Couldn't resist. "Go, Savant" - I mean,
"Savant Are Go!" I edited the 6 mini docus on the discs and need to add this
disclaimer to my opinions ... they were a lot of fun to cut, real Boys-With-Toys fun. "Vrroom! Ka-Pow!"