There are two kinds of people in the world, the people who know the 1960’s British television show “Thunderbirds” well enough to hum the theme song and those who say “who?”
The show was enormously popular with children and something of a guilty camp pleasure for older fans, who could not resist the combination of low-tech marionettes with wobbly heads and static expressions playing the very high-tech heroes of International Rescue, ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (played by Bill Paxton in the film) and his five sons, whose names were inspired by the first five Americans in space: Alan, Virgil, Scott, John, and Gordon.
The Tracys live on a secret island in the South Pacific in a spectacular house filled with gadgets to help monitor the globe and operate their rescue equipment — submarine, plane, rocket ship, space station, and pod vehicles. Super-geek Brains (Anthony Edwards) keeps all the technology running smoothly, so that whenever anyone in the world is in need of rescue, Jeff Tracy calls out “Thunderbirds are GO!” and those folks in peril are on their way to sleeping safe and sound in their own beds.
This live-action update directed by Star Trek’s Jonathan Frakes owes more to Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks than to the original television series. They’ve made the youngest son a teenager (Brady Corbett as Alan), added the children of Brains (Soren Fulton as Fermat) and loyal aide de camp Kyrano (Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Tintin) and put them at the center of the story.
Just after Alan and best friend Fermat return from boarding school to the secret hideaway in the South Pacific, his father and brothers are lured away by the evil Hood (Ben Kingsley). He plans to use the rescue equipment to rob the world’s biggest banks, bringing down the global economy and framing Jeff Tracy as the thief. The Tracy everyone thought was too young to go on missions has to work with his friends to rescue the rescuers.
Corbett, last seen as the younger brother in thirteen is an attractive and appealing hero and the kids have a nice natural chemistry together. Kingsley is clearly enjoying himself as The Hood (though that eyeshadow is a serious mistake), but the highlight of the movie is the delicious Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope, the most adorable combination of coutoure and kickboxing since The Avenger‘s Emma Peel. Lady Penelope is always game to trounce the bad guys while tossing off quips and maintaining her exquisite coiffure, as Parker, her chauffeur/lock-picking expert/sidekick, maintains her fleet of remarkable pink vehicles and helps out whenever needed.
The action sequences are exciting without being too scary. Kids will enjoy seeing the bad guys sprayed with Nickelodeon-style green slime and the way that Fermat uses Alan’s retainer to save the day at a crucial moment. The equipment is also very cool, especially Lady Penelope’s very chic pink car/plane and Alan’s hovercraft. The film drags a bit when the kids are chasing the bad guys all over the island while we are impatient for them to just get on the darn plane, but overall, these Thunderbirds are GO!
Parents should know that the movie has a couple of mild swear words (and implied bad words), brief crude humor, and the use of wire from a bra to aid in an escape. There are some boy-girl references and a comment that a young girl is “blossoming.” The characters are in frequent peril and there are a number of fight scenes, but it is not overly intense, there is no gunplay, and no one gets badly hurt, though someone gets kicked in the crotch. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of diverse characters as both bad and good guys, including characters with a speech impediment.
Families who see this movie should talk about how kids can sometimes feel that their parents do not realize that they are ready to grow up and the importance of listening carefully. Why does Alan insult his best friend, and what does he learn from that? They may want to talk about the feeling of learning that your parents are not perfect and understanding the strengths and weakenesses of those around us — and ourselves. What does it mean to “use your opponent’s strength against him?”
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy learning more about the television series. This site has online clips and information about ordering the series on DVD. They might like to look up the inspiration for Fermat’s name, mathematician Pierre de Fermat, whose theorum has kept people guessing for hundreds of years. “General Hospital” fans may recognize the television news correspondent as Genie Francis, who played Laura for many years. Serious Trekkers will recognize her as the real-life wife of director Frakes.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy Spy Kids and the sequel, but don’t waste time on the third in the series. They may also enjoy Clockstoppers.