Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The publicity for Thunderbirds frankly made it look terrible, a hand-me-down copy of
the Spy Kids franchise instead of anything to do with the pop cult 60s television puppet
show initated by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Reviewers also were on the negative side (the only rave
they could find for the DVD package is from Michael Medved) but the show
is bouncing back on DVD as diverting juvenile entertainment. Although the family
values preaching is hollow and the kid characterizations are as dumb as can be, a serviceable plot
gives the space age hardware an exciting workout and the original show is treated with respect. It's
good fun for small kids, with some reservations. Thunderbirds still Are Go ... more or less.
The emergency team of International Rescue is tricked into a trap
by the infamous villain known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley) so that he can steal one of their vehicles
to rob the Bank of London. Young Alan Tracy, home from school, has been grounded and is therefore
the only one able to fight back when The Hood invades IR's island paradise; he's helped by the
servant's daughter Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of Brains (Anthony
Edwards) and of course Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her faithful servant Parker (Ron Cook). But
Alan is mostly on his own, while his brothers and father Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) are trapped in
the orbiting Thunderbird 5 space station.
Thunderbirds recreates the original television show in all of its corny glory, with most of
the actors doing their best to be agreeably one-dimensional. Lines are all spoken in complete
earnestness, and most of the dialogue is redundant exposition, just as when the characters were handmade
puppets. This can be good nostalgia part of the time. The story arc is nicely worked out to evenly
distribute the rocket-launch action scenes. Almost every one of the old hourlong episodes covered the
same kind of scenes over and over again - repeated launches and communications protocol that invariably
led to some technical rescue problem that could be discussed to death over radio headsets.
The new show also resurrects a familiar TeeVee bad guy, The Hood, portrayed with complete actorly
overkill via the casting of Ben Kingsley. The Hood's aims are no more complicated than robbing
a bank and ruining the reputation of the Thunderbirds. He blames Jeff Tracy for abandoning him in
a rescue a long time ago, and also plants doubts in young Alan's mind about whether Jeff did the
same to his long-dead wife, Alan's mother.
Of course the charges are all hooey, as the Tracys are as noble as heroes come. Jeff Tracy's explanation
is that "You just can't rescue them all," a motto that apparently exonerates the Thunderbirds from lawsuits
should any of their hi-tech rescue work go awry. In this film their organization looks ridiculously
vulnerable, but only because there are evil baddies like The Hood around. Why The Hood persists in being
so wrong can only be chalked up to time-honored Bad Guy logic.
The racism in the old series was standard 60s stuff, with all the baddies characterized as snarling
Arab or Asian fiends with thick accents. The hired help at IR's new Pacific island headquarters are
still Asians behaving with old-fashioned deference to their Anglo employers - the main butler
was once saved by Jeff, and happens to be the brother of The Hood. That means that young Tintin, a
sort of low-key romantic interest for the teenaged Alan, has inherited The Hood's inscrutable oriental
wizardry. She secretly holds the ability to levitate objects and control minds by going into an intense
mental state. just as The Hood does. Their pupils become catlike vertical slits, a nice touch.
Of course, the Anglo characters are just as rigidly stereotyped. Lady Penelope's manservant
Parker still has bushy eyebrows but now fights like a latter day Kato, with an appropriate
cockney attitude, of course. Lady Penelope's high-toned hauteur isn't any more charming than it
used to be, except she also has been converted into a kick-boxing dervish. To serve as her
opposite number, The Hood has a female tech assistant with bad teeth. We're encouraged to make
fun of her looks. Both Brains and his son Fermat have "funny" stutters instead of real character traits.
Although the script defends the honor of speech impediments, the phonetic stumbling makes them
both lesser beings than the squeaky-clean Tracy boys.
When Thunderbirds plays it straight, it almost makes the grade; with the right spin we could have
easily gotten into the old-fashioned juvenile thriller spirit. What stops the story in its tracks is
a general lack of wit, along with the updated treatment of the kid characters. After one cheap swear
word (to get a PG rating?) we're handed the same old misunderstood punk situation - Alan wants to join
IR now and petulantly disobeys orders out of spite. When he's grounded, Alan is convinced that
Jeff is the one with the problem, and we're encouraged to agree. Naturally, the entire plot contrives
to create a situation for Alan to prove himself, battling The Hood while the rest of IR is marooned on
a crumbling space station. Almost everything constructive that the kids do originates with Fermat or
Tintin, but Alan is still the guy who gets the credit, as if he were a junior Tom Cruise character. A
more righteous version of the movie would have young Alan wake up at the end, still grounded, with the
entire Hood episode revealed to be a sulking, bitter fantasy.
Making Alan an obnoxious upstart was probably purposeful, to contrast him with the rest of the
square-jawed Tracys. Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is the director and
he handles the dramatic scenes well enough, even if no particular effects stand out. The film isn't
as frantic as most new action shows (a good thing) yet few of the situations have all that much
impact - the kids especially treat much of the ordeal as a lark, even when their relatives are in
imminent danger. The mediocrity of the movie's kid content is what stops Thunderbirds
from going to the next level and really engaging our imaginations.
The charm of the old show was the clever model and effects work, and it would be easy to slam
Thunderbirds as just so much CGI regurgitation, paid for by the filmic foot. But the effects
retain a pleasing comic-book simplicity - the original spaceship designs are kept and the digital
gloss just makes them more intricate and flexible. The TV show was really for the model railroad-type
fanatics to marvel at all the cool toys; with the flexibility of computer graphics, the IR vehicles
can now serve the story better. They don't do anything particularly fantastic effects-wise, but
they're nicely scaled to the pitch of the juvenile fantasy around them. The only thing I really miss
are Derek Meddings' beautifully-planned miniature explosions, the most interesting and varied I've seen
in the effects field.
The music score wisely recycles the original IR theme by Barry Gray, but the new arrangements don't
have the pep or the impact of the old tracks. Elsewhere the score keeps pace with the show but doesn't
stand out. The producers show their intention of appealing to the kiddie crowd with a truly
awful end credits song sung in a style I've only heard in Weird Al Yankovic parodies.
Universal's DVD of Thunderbirds presents the feature in a flawless enhanced transfer with
all the colorful CGI imagery intact. The amateurish opening credits sequence is probably meant to
represent Alan's doodling in his schoolbook, but it still gets the show off to a bad start. A full
complement of extras are on board, a commentary with Frakes and five docu segments about the
filming (much of it done in the Indian Ocean), the settings, Lady Penelope's color coded gadgets,
her car and the stunts. Oh, and a music video too. There had to be a lot of kids who enjoyed
this one in the theaters, and there are enough goodies here to keep them occupied for the better
part of a rainy afternoon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Supplements: five featurettes, music video, Jonathan Frakes commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 30, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson