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Nostalgia works in strange ways. There remains a sizeable market for certain crazy entertainments of the 1960s that were originally marketed to children. Films like The Mysterians and TV series like the Andersons' ITC Thunderbirds TV show were like watching one's fantasy Dinky toys and plastic rocket ships come to life, with miniature settings far better than any kid's train set or hobby kit. An appreciable success, Thunderbirds rode on a wave that made popular all things '60s and British. By mixing film and television technology, the husband & wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had already created the adventure series Supercar andFireball XL-5, that were syndicated around the globe.
The UK TV success of Thunderbirds disappointingly did not transfer to America, where it was also 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. Continuing their tradition of expert microphotography of fantastic miniatures, the Andersons transferred their amusing "Supermarionation" credit to the big screen on Thunderbirds are GO! & Thunderbird 6.
The basic setup is this: based on a remote island, the Tracy Family runs an in-house top-secret service called International Rescue. IR's five fantastic flying machines, each piloted by a Tracy son, can blast off to anywhere on the globe to effect a rescue. As spies are always trying to put the Tracys out of business, Lady Penelope in London serves as a secret agent, using her own IR-designed gadgets in a sub-James Bondian world. The show has a lot of countdowns, rocket blast-offs, explosions and gunfire (International Rescue is thoroughly weaponed-up). That and catch-phrases like, "Fab!" and, "Thunderbirds are Go!" The real stars of the show are the puppeteers and especially the special effects artists, who fabricate and film dozens of interesting miniatures per episode. Even in the TV show, the effects often bettered those seen in live action feature films... see the rickety helicopter models in the big budget Flight for Ashiya sometime.
When the American Cinematheque screened the two Thunderbirds feature films at the Egyptian Theater a number of years ago, a full house went nuts over their childhood puppet heroes. Most had never seen the film versions, and every silly dialogue line or overstated special effect elicited huge laughs and applause. At that time Trey Parker's satirical spoof Team America: World Police had just been released; it may have been a factor in the brief rediscovery of the originals.
The first Andersons-produced feature film Thunderbirds are GO! mixes a space voyage with spy skullduggery on Earth. Mars ship Zero X mysteriously explodes on takeoff, and two years later the father & sons International Rescue team takes on the job of security for the second try. The saboteurs are routed with the help of Lady Penelope (voiced by Sylvia Anderson), but the Mars mission still needs the help of the amazing Thunderbirds rescue craft.
Thunderbirds are GO! enlarges the scope of the television show for a trip to Mars while providing a full workout for the flying tanks and rockets based on the Tracys' tropical island. The Anderson filmmaking unit was a family affair and the movies show 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 got the attention of studio effects experts around the world.1
However, keeping all the creative functions to one's self isn't always a good idea. The big-screen Thunderbirds scripts are almost purposely corny and trite, as if the Andersons had decided that the key to Batman- like camp success was cheerful mediocrity. Dialogue is sincere and flat and almost completely expository in nature, just there to explain the parade of gadgets. No five year-old is left behind.
The lumpy story makes the doings at International Rescue a sidebar issue to a Mars Mission we don't really care about. 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 is having 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 dream in which "Cliff Richard Jr." sings a groaner called Shooting Star in a space nightclub right out of The Jetsons.2
For all its shortcomings Thunderbirds are GO! plays well with nostalgic adults today. Despite the lack of a real story or emotional center the film generates a good silly suspense, and its miniature world of constant jeopardy and exploding chaos seems in some way an oddly accurate view of modern life: a steady diet of pushbutton luxury and Piña Coladas, until all hell breaks loose and everything is blown to smithereens. One wonders how everyone can be so ecstatic about the rescue of the Zero X crew, when the falling ship strikes a sizeable community, possibly wiping out hundreds of innocent people. And where's the logical Dirtybirds spin-off show, the one charting the exploits of the lowly ordinary folk who clean up the devastation brought on by the Tracys' so-called "rescues?" International Rescue is apparently located on a secret island for the purpose of avoiding lawsuits.
Once again the business of International Rescue takes second position to a story about another technological endeavor. The nerdish Brains (voiced by David Graham) secretly designs Sky Ship One, an anti-gravity luxury liner. The enormous airship makes a maiden voyage around the world with "secret" celebrities from International Rescue as its only passengers. But the evil villain "Hood" in the guise of The Black Phantom sends the suave Foster (voice John Carson) to kill the crew and impersonate the captain. Becoming aware of the subterfuge while visiting pyramids and skiing the Alps, Lady Penelope (voiced by Sylvia Anderson) must convey a message back to International Rescue: "We've been hijacked by air pirates!" Meanwhile, Brains has all but given up trying to please the fussy Tracys, who wanted a design for a new secret rescue vehicle. The one he built turns out to be low-tech, but undeniably practical.
Thunderbird 6 appears to have been made to finish off the Andersons' UA contract after the broadcast version of the show had ceased production. The Andersons had already moved on to newer TV shows, along with their first live-action science fiction spectacle Doppelganger, aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Released from the need to concentrate on Bigger and Better explosions by the relative box office failure of the first film, the producers go off on a completely new direction with a story that aims to appeal equally to lovers of dolls and miniature doll houses.
The plot bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the 9/11 terror attacks. Mysterious hijackers seize a monstrous airship. Their leader is a nefarious dark-skinned Eastern malefactor, the same villain tapped by the TV show whenever a generic non-Anglo bad guy was 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, with Lady Penelope taking 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, and when they "change heads" to show exaggerated laughing faces, the effect is borderline horrifying.
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 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 and tie up Penelope and her International Rescue allies, so as better to explain to them their evil aims. Naturally, the limitations of the puppet technique require Lane to cut away until the heroes are all bound to the ship's levitation apparatus. That's when the bad guy Foster declares, "You are now my prisoners!" for the benefit of 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 on the pitifully-outgunned hostiles with massive cannons) and another calamitous circus of explosions for a finish, a lot of Thunderbird 6 hangs around various castles and dollhouses for 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 yanks the movie out 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 soon leapfrogged that idea, skipping all the time-consuming physical 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.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Thunderbirds are Go! & Thunderbird 6 presents both features in excellent widescreen HD presentations -- the original cinematography is so good that we see very little granularity in the half-frame Techniscope images. Remixed in 5.1, the orgy of rocket blasts and explosions fills the room with the kind of blow-it-up pre-sexual overkill that little boys and many fathers love. Barry Gray's brassy main theme gets a lot of repetition. It's basically a clarion fanfare, and after listening to it for a while, it begins to seem derivative of Alfred Newman's superb march fanfare for the classic Captain from Castile.
One Blu-ray disc contains both films. The extras are culled from MGM's earlier (2004) DVD special edition, with some new items added on top. Both features have 2004 commentaries with producer Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane, and Thunderbirds are GO! has a new talk-track with film historians Jeff Bond and Nick Redman. Along with trailers and animated photo galleries, all of the older featurettes are in place, hosted by Sylvia Anderson, Richard Hollis and puppeteer Mary Anderson: History and Appeal, Factory of Dolls and Rockets, Epics in Miniature, Lady Penelope, Building Better Puppets, Tiger Moth.
As the 'kiddie appeal' angle has been dropped for this release, Twilight Time does not include the original's games and punch-out Thunderbirds craft extras. But new to the disc are the Gerry Anderson-oriented featurettes: Excitement is Go!, Making Thunderbirds and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Another new item is an extra composed of the full dailies of a shoot with Richard and his band, lip synching the song Shooting Star. The lyrics are painful but we get raw takes of each band member playing all the way through. Inventive home editors have all they need to cut their own Cliff Richard music video!
Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes add more factual detail to the Anderson's unique approach to adventure filmmaking, while admitting that all those "eternally smiling wooden faces with ominously shifting eyes" creep her out as much as they do this writer. It even has a name -- pupaphobia.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Sylvia Anderson was approached by Stanley Kubrick about 2001: A Space Odyssey but didn't get involved in that project. Derek Meddings later provided expert miniature effects work for 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 surely 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 (pictured left in Where Eagles Dare) often looked exactly like an Anderson puppet creation. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once did a reportedly perfect live-action television sketch takeoff on Thunderbirds.
(Note: correspondent Rick Notch has sent in the link, 5.16.14: the Cook & Moore sketch is called Superthunderstingcar.)
4. Aren't you glad I worry about these things? 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 silver vacuum cleaner, and is marginally more interesting than the first feature's unwieldy Zero X.
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T'was Ever Thus.