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By Pete Vonder Haar | August 1, 2004

Making a live-action movie based on a relatively unknown 1960s British kids’ TV program in which all the characters were played by marionettes wouldn’t seem that tough to pull off. Puppets haven’t really been popular since the 19th century (or at least the advent of video games), and today’s modern technology could really work some wondrous improvements in the special effects department, right?

So you’d think. The problem with movies relying principally on F/X is that they invariably look fake. In the days of stop-motion animation and forced perspective, the illusion was pretty obvious, and while CGI has reached a point where it can essentially duplicate anything we can imagine, it’s still far from seamless. Even Gollum, widely regarded as the best CGI creation to date, had his flaws. “Thunderbirds,” the new movie directed by Jonathan Frakes, eschews the puppetry of the TV show for the latest in computer animated vehicle goodness, and does a pretty good job of it. Audiences are likely to be frustrated, however, since the damn Thunderbirds – the vehicles from which the team gets its name – are so rarely on screen.

One of the first scenes, in which the crew of an offshore rig is rescued by the Tracy family in their fabulous flying machines, is actually pretty well executed. Sorry, did I say “the Tracy family?” I meant “The “Thunderbirds,” because nobody else in the world suspects they’re actually billionaire astronaut Jeff Tracy and four of his sons operating from their privately owned tropical island. Anyway, problems crop up when the youngest and whiniest Tracy, Alan (Brady Corbet), complains that his dad won’t let him join the team. He exchanges harsh words with Dad, then storms off. Shortly thereafter, an emergency on Thunderbird One (the Tracy’s orbiting reconnaissance platform) forces the team to speed off to the rescue, leaving Tracy Island in the hands of Alan, his friend Fermat, Goose Brains (Anthony Edwards in what I assume is a purely for-the-paycheck role), various servants, and Alan’s erstwhile love interest, Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens).

Of course, it’s no “accident” that befalls Thunderbird Five. The station has been cunningly disabled by a supervillain known only as “The Hood.” Played by Sir Ben Kingsley (he threatened to make me sit through repeated screenings of “Species” if I didn’t throw the “Sir” in there), The Hood possesses supernatural mental powers, which allow him to swoop into Tracy Island with a mere two henchmen and take over. What could his diabolical plan actually be? World domination? Global extortion? Ending life as we know it?

Nah, he just wants to rob some banks, starting with the Bank of London. Far be it from me to question the motives of the bad guy, but couldn’t the same thing be accomplished by hijacking a few trucks and using your awesome mental powers to get the bank’s president to open the vault? So much for evil.

Naturally, it’s left to Alan, Tintin (who names their daughter after a 75-year old Belgian cartoon character?), and Fermat to foil the baddies. Lucky for Alan – who’s bad at just about everything – that the other two decide to tag along, otherwise he wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, the mysterious and glamorous Lady Penelope also shows up to offer her assistance, as the group finds itself in a race against time to save the Thunderbirds and foil The Hood.

“Thunderbirds” leads to more questions than can ever be answered. Such as: is there any lamer cover identity than “billionaire astronaut” (at least Bruce Wayne kept the Batcave secret)? Or, how does NATO or the UN feel about the geopolitical ramifications of having an orbiting intelligence platform in the hands of a private individual?

Now, unless I misread the marketing for this one, “Thunderbirds” is supposed to be a kids’ movie. Moreover, it’s a kids’ movie that centers on the adventures of a family made up solely of men who fly around in big rocketships and perform daring rescues around the globe. This would lead us to believe that the filmmakers are targeting the young male market. But wait, the aristocratic Lady Penelope is one of the primary characters, and Tintin just happens to be smarter and more capable than her would-be boyfriend. Something for the girls, perhaps.

“Thunderbirds” is obviously trying to play to both male and female audiences. For the guys, Universal’s advertising campaign is presenting the film as a gee whiz action tale, when in reality the actual Thunderbirds spend 80% of the film trapped in outer space and the heavily plugged machines appear prominently in a whopping two scenes. For the ladies, they’re trying to sell “Spy Kids”-lite, in which the smarter and more capable females have to save the bacon of their male counterparts. What we end up with is a movie centered on an hour’s worth of kids running through the jungle, John Fogarty style, before they discover the joys of Sesame Street-level “cooperation.” Kids of all sizes and genders are going to be disappointed.

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