This review was corrected on May 23, 2002.
A willfully eccentric British kidpic that morphs into a gung-ho American movie, “Thunderpants” is a single joke — a schoolboy who can’t stop farting — dressed up in a lot of plot. Set, like helmer Pete Hewitt’s “The Borrowers” (1997), in a kind of early-’60s English Never-Never Land, but less f/x heavy, pic never really extends its premise into a convincing, rounded entertainment after the initial yocks have worn off. Business in the U.K., where film is released wide May 24, looks to be moderate rather than a blast, with offshore returns not especially fragrant.
Opening reel milks most of the laughs from the subject as Patrick Smash (newcomer Bruce Cook) recaps his life to date in v.o. A boy who started farting excessively as soon as he was born, Patrick was fitted with a variety of solutions, ranging from a simple bag to a long tube that funneled his fumes out the window.
Now around age 10, the deeply unattractive boy is reviled by his bookish sister (Anna Popplewell) and at school has only one friend, nerdy wannabe inventor Alan A. Allen (Rupert Grint, Ron Weasley from “Harry Potter”), who lacks a sense of smell. Patrick wants to have “total control of my sphincter” and become an astronaut, so Alan comes up with Thunderpants, a giant pair of boxer shorts that stores and recycles Patrick’s flatulence.
A great deal of work has gone into the look of the film, which mixes period and contemporary artifacts into a totally manufactured, timeless universe — given an extra spin by a color scheme in which ochres, blacks and cold greens are dominant. (One scene, outside Alan’s home, has all the apartment doors the same shade of green, as well as identical green Minis parked outside.) Characters, too, such as Celia Imrie’s dragon-like headmistress, recall late ’50s/early ’60s stereotypes of British cinema.
So far, so good. However, as the script tries to start constructing a narrative around the central joke, it ends up floundering in several directions.
Emboldened by discovering the medical background to his condition — he has two stomachs — Patrick enters a “non-assisted flight competition” on a contraption built by Alan and powered by himself, and wins. This further excites the interest of some goons from the U.S. Space Center, headed by Gen. Sheppard (Ned Beatty, coasting), who’ve been shadowing the boys for some time.
When Alan is poached by the USSC, lonesome Patrick accepts an offer from loony John Osgood (Simon Callow), the “second greatest tenor in the world,” to accompany him on tour. Osgood plans to become No. 1 by performing an impossible aria and getting Patrick to fart a top C at the appropriate moment.
That’s just the first half of a movie that, though only 83 minutes long (including credits), packs in almost as many subplots as “Attack of the Clones” to keep things moving and, in its set pieces, is not especially slickly directed.
Second half, which finds Patrick rescued from a British firing squad by the FBI and co-opted into “powering” a space rescue mission (with a parody of “The Right Stuff”), seems lightyears away from the foregoing material. As if to underline the difference, pic’s color scheme switches from the downbeat colors of quaint old Blighty to vivid whites and reds for can-do, more modern America.
Just to make sure no one in the back row missed the message, a v.o. by young Patrick enunciates it at the end with a bullhorn: “I’m just a nobody, really. But I did one thing right. You may think that you have problems now. Use them well. And they stop being a problem and become a gift.” Uh, right.
In addition to Callow’s totally over-the-top perf as the mad tenor, pic is peppered with eccentric cameos — from Stephen Fry to veterans like Leslie Phillips and Robert Hardy — that reinforce the old-style comicbook atmosphere. Of the two kid leads, Cook makes a rather flat impression as lumbering loser Patrick, leaving Grint to work overtime as inventor pal Alan.
Aside from the production and costume design by Chris Roope and Ann Maskrey, the real star of the picture is composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. His big, busy orchestral score recycles every cliche of “inspirational” film music to keep the often runaway picture on message.