Saturday, 11 April 2009

Movie Review - Thunderbirds

[Back in July 2004] I went to see Thunderbirds without very high expectations – it looked like a cheesy kids adventure with no real surprises in store. Still, I was interested to see what they did with the concept of Gerry Anderson’s vintage puppet show.

Taste the cheese. The cheese is goooooooooooood.

I wasn’t born when the puppets of International Rescue first started strutting their heroic stuff no TV, and by the time I became fashionable again, I was too old to want to watch it. I have seen one or two episodes, but I’m not what you’d call a fan. With cartoons and the like being made into films with varying degrees of success, how would the puppets fare?

For anyone who knows little or nothing about the original series, it's about a retired astronaut (Jeff Tracy) and his five sons. They operate out of a secret island base (Tracy Island) as International Rescue. They go around the world rescuing people from natual and other catastrophes in their five hi-tech craft called "Thunderbirds" - numbered one to five. These craft have different abilities - one is actually a space station, one an underwater craft, one a rocket ship, etc. That should give you enough of an idea about the original to understand the rest of my review - if it doesn't, let me know!

One of the main potential problems is that the main characters - Jeff Tracy and his sons – are… well, boring. However, the scriptwriters wisely chose to all but leave them out of this film - Bill Paxman as the dad gets a couple of scenes, but the sons between them have only about five minutes’ worth of screen time! (John – presumably the son they didn’t like – keeps a permanent lookout on a space station [Thunderbird 5]. When it is attacked by evil bad guy The Hood, the other Tracy’s trot off to rescue him – guess they did sort of like him really. They all end up getting stranded on Thunderbird 5, leaving it to Alan, the youngest son who’s still at school, to save the day. That’s not a spoiler by the way, the trailer tells you that much.) Anyway, so much for the plot – it’s hokum and uninspiring, and frankly it’s unimportant.

After a suitably retro-style opening sequence (including an updated – but still retro-sounding – version of the original Thunderbirds theme tune), we are introduced to Alan in another humdrum day as school, dreaming of being a Thunderbird. Indeed, the story more or less centres around Alan and his two friends – the oddly-named Fermat (Brain’s son) and his token love interest, Tin Tin (who occasionally manages to do a bit more than be a token love interest, thankfully). The three young actor types (Brady Corbet , Soren Fulton, and Vanessa Anne Hudgens) do a pretty good job and a quite watchable when they’re on-screen. But the real reason why this movie transcends the ordinary is down to Ben Kingsley (The Hood), Rose Keegan (Transom – evil professor), Anthony Edwards (Brains), Sophia Myles (Lady Penelope), and Ron Cook (Parker). Kingsley enjoys himself immensely in his role as a baddie with far more brains than normal and a really evil look. His cronies (Deobia Oparei is also pretty good as Mullion) are also fun, with Keegan putting in a fine performance as the repulsive yet somehow sexy professor who has a crush on Brains. Speaking of Brains, it was nice to see Anthony Edwards in a film again (the last one I saw him in was Top Gun!), who is absolutely brilliant as Brains. The funniest moment in the film is between him and The Hood – The Hood’s facial expressions and Brain’s stutter combine to form a priceless scene. (I know it’s not good to mock the afflicted but his stutter is used to good comic effect throughout the film – and anyway there’s a scene with his son showing that making fun of stutterers is something only jerks do, so that’s all right then.) Best of all, the way Lady Penelope and Parker are portrayed is wonderful – from the trailers I had predicted that the Lady Penelope character was going to be a disaster, but she is brilliant - not least the way Myles delivers some pretty awful lines in a way that still makes you laugh! She’s not an actress I’m familiar with, but after seeing this I’m convinced she’s one to watch out for. Parker is also very funny, and if you want to know how he came across… just imagine Michael Caine playing the part and you’ll be nine tenths there.

The plot and action sequences are aimed squarely at the kids, who will enjoy it for that reason. But the jokes – and the film is full of them – are aimed directly at the adults, and have a heavy sense of irony, frequently making jibes at the original. (“You’re nothing more than a puppet on a puppet on a string!”, exclaims The Hood in one sequence, and Lady Penelope whispers: “Please be more careful. I am a spy you know, and need to keep a low profile” – seconds before climbing into her chauffeured, bright pink sports car!)

The sets (especially Tracy Island) are gorgeous – I really liked the way they’d turned it from what was in the original series into a location worthy of a blockbuster. I was also extremely surprised (and pleased!) to see that the special effects were truly excellent – I was expecting them to be ok but kind of cheesy (movies for kids tend to be a bit ropey in the SFX department, after all). Judging by the closing credits, it would appear that the vast majority of the effects were done using models with hardly any CGI, which is nice to see in these computer-dominated days, and makes the quality of the effects even more impressive. It was also pleasing to see a quality film that wasn’t a James Bond film having been shot at Pinewood Studios. Jonathon Frakes (who also directed Star Trek: First Contact has proven himself to be a decent if not spectacular Director, and there’s nothing much wrong with the way he handled this film.

When coming to review this film I was reminded of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not that the films are very alike, but there are plenty of things you could criticise about both films, but they're both so enjoyable that none of the shortcomings of the films really matter. I was almost tempted to give Thunderbirds 5 stars, but really it’s not “excellent” overall – it is, however, supremely enjoyable. I can recommend it to anyone – kids will like it for the story, adults will like it for the humour. Will fans of the original like it? That is a much more difficult question to answer. I suspect they will unless they are fanatical fans or are expecting something very similar to the original series – it’s nothing like it. If you’ve read this review, it should give you a good idea of whether you’d enjoy it. I’m actually planning to go and watch it again next week… Seeing a film more than once at the cinema is a rare occasion for me and gives you some idea of just how enjoyable a film it is!

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