(Jonathan Frakes, UK/USA, 2004)


I have a distinct advantage over many prospective viewers of this movie: I have never watched an episode of the television incarnation of Thunderbirds all the way through. And I suspect – after reading many aggrieved articles on the matter – that a lack of sentimental attachment to the original series is a firm prerequisite for getting any enjoyment whatsoever from this film.

So just try to forget those puppets and cheap effects from the 1960s. This Thunderbirds, a project perhaps unwisely hatched by the wildly successful British company Working Title Films, has much more in common with movies for kids like Catch That Kid (2004) and especially the Spy Kids series.

The film is squarely based on a male niche market on the cusp between childhood and adolescence – with a tiny touch of girl-power for any females of the same age who might also be in the crowd. Boys who are already Thunderbirds aficionados will appreciate on the big screen exactly what they savour on the box: the spaceships that the heroes use are precisely detailed, numbered and differentiated.

Like many movies that implicitly gesture back to a pre-existing television series, Thunderbirds has a plot that starts in the thick of things and then scarcely proceeds anywhere. The bad guy is The Hood (Ben Kingsley doing his Shakespearean schtick), and the head of the Thunderbirds family clan is Jeff (Bill Paxton). But the story mainly concentrates on a trio of youngsters (played by Soren Fulton, Vanessa Anne Hudgens and Brady Corbett) who have yet to achieve official crime-fighting status.

Like Spider-Man, the Thunderbirds are heroes called upon to avert the catastrophes that police and governments have, apparently, given up trying to manage. The Thunderbirds' powers are (for the most part) quite ordinary and technologically-assisted, but their reach is far more global than the parochial Spider-Man, stuck in his one, dark city. This is the sole canny move on Working Title's part: who could have guessed that Thunderbirds would function as a reassuring fantasy in an age of renewed terrorism?

Director Jonathan Frakes, a Star Trek alumnus, handles this slight material with confidence. While not overplaying the camp element, he does enjoy himself at times by pushing the cast into old-fashioned histrionics; whole scenes are dramatised by intercutting various characters raising their eyebrows at various angles and speeds. And Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope is a lot of fun.

© Adrian Martin September 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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