The original sixties television series of “Thunderbirds” was one of Gerry Anderson’s elaborate puppet shows featuring marionettes (he called the production process Supermarionation, perhaps in imitation of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Dynamation moniker), so perhaps it’s appropriate that this live-action movie based on it should feature acting that can best be described as wooden. Bill Paxton and Ben Kingsley, easily the biggest names in the cast, are both so stiff that one wonders whether there might be artificially concealed strings controlling them. In terms of settings, moreover, one can see distinct continuity: the chintzy backgrounds and tinny machinery of the old program are pretty much replicated here in a production that looks gaudily cheesy and spaceships and other gizmos that appear about as convincing as the stuff you’re likely to see on “Power Rangers.”
But there’s one big change in the reworking by William Osborne and Michael McCullers. In the original, the heroes who manned the futuristic rescue vehicles that flew out from their secret island fortress to save people trapped in disasters all over the world were the adult members of the Tyler family. But in the wake of “Spy Kids,” when young viewers want to see protagonists of their own age in such roles, the over-eighteen Tylers become the endangered souls who themselves have to be rescued by teens and tykes. Today’s kids, it would appear, can’t be expected to idolize anybody not their own age anymore.
So the protagonist this time around isn’t really Jeff Tracy (Paxton), the idealistic ex-astronaut who’s built the fabulous Thunderbirds complex (no explanation of where all the money came from, of course), or the elder sons who pilot the remaining spaceships and the orbiting station used to direct their operations, but instead fifteen-year old Alan Tracy (played by blond, bland potential teen heartthrob Brady Corbet), whose work in school is second to his burning desire to join his father’s team. When the current Thunderbirds are all trapped on their disintegrating space station by a master criminal called The Hood (Kingsley), who’s taken over the Thunderbirds’ base and plans to use their equipment to rob the world’s banks and destroy the international monetary system (he never explains why–it’s just sheer nastiness, one supposes, since the money he’d steal would soon be worthless), it’s Alan, hiding on the island, who must save his dad and brothers and foil the nefarious plot. He’s aided in this effort by his nerdy schoolmate and best buddy Fermat (Soren Fulton), the bespectacled son of the Thunderbirds’ stuttering scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards), and by TinTin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), the daughter of the family butler, who also just happens to be The Hood’s niece, endowed with some of the same telekinetic powers the villain possesses. (She’s also, of course, the focus of Alan’s first pangs of puppy love.) Added to the mix are Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), a British intelligence agent with a preference for everything pink, and her loyal valet Parker (Ron Cook)–characters who might have seemed amusing in the days of the old James Bond and Modesty Blaise but now are too retro for words.
It’s possible that “Thunderbirds” might have served as the basis for an Austin Powers-Brady Bunch sort of spoof of the original show, but by treating it as an occasion for candy-coated, sweetly moralistic kiddie fare writers William Osborne and Michael McCullers have stumbled badly. They’ve concocted a piece that, despite all the flying machines, seems an earthbound retread of the “Spy Kids” movies, marked by even less magic and imagination. Director Jonathan Frakes, of the “Star Trek” franchise, compounds the problems by having everything played both broadly and flatly. This movie and his previous “Clockstoppers” suggest that Frakes has an affection for old-style children’s entertainment, which isn’t a bad thing–but he doesn’t exhibit the verve or skill to re-energize the sort of material that the kids of today, with their split-second attention spans and love of video games, generally find turgid. And while the youngsters in the cast get by with the sort of zealous mugging that would pass muster on any Saturday morning series, the adults around them look like they’re slumming–not only Paxton and Kingsley, but also Edwards, who overdoes the stuttering geek stereotype so shrilly that perhaps he should hasten back to “E.R.,” this time as a patient, and Myles, whose snippy Lady Penelope is a caricature bore. Cook too plays to the rafters. All of the remaining Tracy brothers are thoroughly interchangeable, but the otherwise cheesy production design does have one good visual joke in plastering pictures of them on the doors through which they each go to their respective ships; it’s as if they couldn’t find their way without pictorial aids to remind them, much the same way the batpoles had the names of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson attached to them in the old TV show. Otherwise the movie has brightness but not much visual snap.
Making live-action pictures out of old kids’ TV shows is a business that rarely works. “Thunderbirds” joins “The Flintstones” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle” as proof of that.