Universal’s somewhat schizophrenic summer kidpic “Thunderbirds” never fully decides between its parallel missions as a knowingly campy live-action update of the 1960s Brit TV puppet series and a fantasy action-adventure for the uninitiated that taps into the “Spy Kids” spirit of preteen empowerment. While not unenjoyable on either count, the story rarely gets fired up to “maximum thrust,” to use the rocket-speed parlance of its heroes. Cult status of the original series could spark curiosity in the U.K., but lack of U.S. brand recognition poses a serious challenge for the $70 million Working Title production.
Conceived by husband-and-wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the original “Thunderbirds” series was produced 1964-66. While its failure to secure a U.S. network sale caused the show to be canceled after 32 episodes, the “Supermarionation” series still endures in reruns and on DVD for funky sci-fi geeks and pop culture nostalgists. The show also spawned two features from United Artists: “Thunderbirds Are Go” in 1966, and “Thunderbird 6” two years later, neither of which were profitable.
Set in 2065, the series chronicled the dangerous deeds of widowed millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons, named after the first Americans in space. The family operates Intl. Rescue from their luxurious home base on an unmapped secret island in the South Pacific. Monitoring the globe from a manned space station, the Tracys spring to action whenever natural or criminally orchestrated disasters threaten the planet, zooming to the scene in Thunderbird rocket ships.
Scripted by William Osborne and Michael McCullers from a story by Peter Hewitt and Osborne, the main titles carry no credit acknowledging the characters created by the Andersons. However, the update not only is remarkably faithful in resurrecting the full complement of original characters, it also apes the show’s clunky retro-futuristic technology, ’60s space depiction and the kind of generic plotting generally more suited to a TV half-hour — heroism and altruism triumphs, after a close call or two, over greed and evil.
While the Tracy sons on TV seemed well into early adulthood, principal departure here is the youth element. Alan (Brady Corbet) is now a young teen impatient to become a card-carrying Thunderbird but stuck attending boarding school with Fermat (Soren Fulton), the bespectacled son of stuttering inventor Brains (Anthony Edwards), who keeps the Tracys in cool gadgetry and hot vehicles.
The boys’ spring-break return to Tracy Island coincides with a plot by arch criminal the Hood (Ben Kingsley) to rob the world’s largest banks and throw the global monetary system into chaos.
The scripters take the adult do-gooders out of the equation by sending father Jeff (Bill Paxton) and sons to the space station to rescue brother John (Lex Shrapnel) after a Hood missile strike. The criminal and his goons gain control of the Tracy base and cripple the rescue ship, unaware that Alan and Fermat are hiding on the island.
Determined to outwit the intruders, the boys team with TinTin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), the daughter of the Tracys’ loyal manservant — and the Hood’s half-brother — Kyrano (Bhasker Patel). TinTin’s sudden blossoming sparks some flirtation with Alan. Aided by the arrival of cool-headed society beauty-turned-crime fighter Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her doting chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook), the resourceful band board a Thunderbird and follow the Hood to Britain, where he plans to hit the Bank of London.
Director Jonathan Frakes, who reinvigorated the “Star Trek” franchise with “First Contact,” fails to pump the same energy into this tube-to-screen transfer.
“Thunderbirds” purists may be outraged at the juvenile turn taken by the feature. But the film displays more verve and freshness when it’s winking at aficionados than in the rather rote action sequences, which mostly lack the excitement to fully engage the target preteen crowd. Segs like Lady Penelope’s acrobatic fight scene with the Hood’s flunkeys are given especially sloppy coverage.
Much of the series’ fascination came from the stiffness, jerky movements and visible strings of its marionettes; far more fun could have been milked had this aspect been partly incorporated or played up by the cast.
Exception is Paxton, who gets with the program in a tongue-in-cheek, woodenly earnest turn, spouting lines like “Saving lives is a dangerous business, but it’s what we do.” Both Myles and Cook deliver steady laughs, amusingly incarnating by far the campiest characters of the series — pink couture-clad Lady P with her breathy, posh tones and Parker with his convivial air of a reformed working-class thug. However, given the film’s ample evidence of Ford sponsorship, Lady P no longer summons her driver with “Parker, bring round the Rolls.”
On the tech side, John Beard’s production design drolly rekindles the show’s look with its garish sets, cheesy radar screens and lurid candy-colored flight vessels, among them Lady P’s pink convertible with air and sea capabilities. The island hideout — filmed in the Seychelles — is a riot of ’60s modern architecture and decor, and the series staple of a monorail in peril is featured on the Thames.
Hans Zimmer’s score neatly incorporates the original “Thunderbirds Are Go” theme, and the delightful animated title sequence provides a witty recap of the Intl. Rescue setup.