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Thunderbirds

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/04 14:16:21

"So I liked it. Yes, really."
3 stars (Just Average)

There are a hundred good reasons not to like “Thunderbirds,” but I’m going with the one reason to like it: because it’s fun. It’s a mess of a movie, to be sure, and it’s intent to appeal to kids makes it a weak watch for grown-ups. But you know what? I had a good time. It’s a light, zippy adventure yarn built to thrill, and I bought it. I know I probably shouldn’t have, but I bought it. Bought every inch of its non-refundable silliness. My daughter did, too.

The film is based on the cult classic British TV series of the same name, which introduced the world to “Supermarionation,” a form of puppetry that was equally impressive and surreal. The series followed the Tracy family as they saved the world as “International Rescue,” a group of, well, rescue folks who used massive futuristic vehicles codenamed “Thunderbirds.” Thunderbirds, by the way, is also what the IR team called themselves. Got it?

The Thunderbird vehicles were essentially giant toys, and it takes no thought to see why someone thought this would be the right movie to make: all those fifth grade boys rushing out to the toy store to buy the tie-in merchandise after seeing all those life-size toys flying around and saving the world? Heck, I’d have bought two in my day, allowance permitting, of course.

So the giant toys that save the world premise stinks of cheap marketing, but, somehow, in some way, it works despite itself. Watching the film, I kept thinking that who among us had not, in our younger days, dreamed of life-sized versions of their favorite toys? How cool would it have been to see a Transformer come to life, and get to pilot it, too? Guys, think about what a reaction that would have gotten from you long ago, and you’ve got the feeling of watching “Thunderbirds.” It’s almost enough to forgive the rampant product placement: all them toy-like vehicles are sponsored by Ford. Ugh.

In the filmmakers’ attempts to make their movie more appealing to a young audience, the plot centers not around the Thunderbirds themselves, but around a trio of kids too young to be on the team. The youngest Tracy brother, Alan (Brady Corbet), is first seen moping about being in private school while his family is off on their endless adventures. Alan’s best pal is the nerdy Fermat (Soren Fulton), son of the Thunderbirds’ ace scientist/inventor dude Brains (Anthony Edwards), and he, too, feels left out.

When the boys head off to Tracy Island for Spring Break, Alan becomes quite vocal about his wanting to ditch school and join the team, etc., etc., to which dad Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) replies that he is not old enough, not ready enough, etc., etc. You can see where the plot is headed - the Thunderbirds are soon under attack from the mysterious psychic villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley), and it’s up to Alan and Fermat, plus their spunky gal pal Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), to save the family and the day.

It’s a predictable, familiar story, but what lighthearted fun. The movie reminds me of the first “Spy Kids,” with its bright, colorful inventions of imagination. The young leads are charming enough to carry the project, while the grown-up supporting cast adds some much welcome kick. Kingsley, apparently taking the job for the fun of it, chews up the scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks; his Hood is a deliciously overplayed baddie that makes these kid movies such a hoot. Meanwhile, Sophia Myles, as Lady Penelope, and Ron Cook, as her valet Parker, steal the show with brassy characters that make their scenes look like “The Avengers For Kids.” And Paxton and Edwards, while given far too little to do, look like they’re having enough of a silly good time that the spirit of fun rubs off with great ease.

Following his success directing two of the later “Star Trek” movies, Jonathan Frakes looks to be carving out a comfortable niche as a maker of kids’ sci-fi adventures. His last project was “Clockstoppers,” a movie that lacked a certain oomph to make it work for the whole family; only younger viewers would enjoy it fully. With “Thunderbirds,” however, Frakes goes one better, crafting a slick thrill ride that’s sure to please the grade school and junior high set while managing to keep mom and dad’s interest as well. It’s easy to find the flaws in this movie - the plot isn’t focused enough, the jokes too overplayed, the adventure too predictable - but it says something about Frakes as a filmmaker that he can take these weak elements and deliver a movie that’s enjoyable anyway.

“Thunderbirds” is not a movie for everyone, natch (if it looks like a movie you wouldn’t want to see, trust your hunch), but kids and grown-ups who can recall the spirit of being a kid will eat it up as the friendly, snappy adventure it is.

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