Running Time: 95 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: French and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French and Spanish – Dolby Digital 5.1
December 21st, 2004
When I first heard that Ben Kingsley and Bill Paxton were starring in a live-action film based on Gerry Anderson’s very cool Thunderbirds marionettes, I was not sure what to think. Let’s face it, these types of “updates” usually B-L-O-W, but I still held out some hope, because I think Paxton and Kingsley are both very fine actors, and I was hopeful they wouldn’t sign onto this project just to get a paycheck. Sadly, their talents prove incapable of lifting director Jonathan Frakes’ sappy, mediocre Spy Kids copycat off of the ground, which is in truth only very loosely based on Gerry Anderson’s show and feature films Thunderbirds Are Go! and Thunderbird 6.
In this take on Thunderbirds, Bill Paxton portrays the über-rich Jeff Tracy, patriarch of the Tracy clan and a former astronaut who now devotes his financial resources to saving people from danger with a fleet of amazing “Thunderbird” vehicles. Okay, that sounds like the Thunderbirds we know and love, but for some reason, Mr. Frakes tosses the harrowing rescues out the window, in order to tell a mundane, youth-friendly story about Alan (Brady Corbet), the youngest (and most obnoxious) of the five Tracy boys.
Like almost all teens, Alan thinks he knows better than his parents, and takes issue with his father’s mandate that he finish school before becoming a more active member of the Thunderbirds team. Unfortunately, the Tracy family’s nemesis, the Hood (Kingsley), tricks the team into heading into space, and then leaves them abandoned while he infiltrates their hidden base of operations and attempts to use their resources for his own sinister purposes.
Now, tell me you did not see this coming…the only Tracy son left to foil the evil Hood’s plan is young Alan, who gets the chance to prove himself worthy of his surname by rescuing his family. Indeed, once the Hood executes his plan, Alan springs into action, recruiting help in the form of two friends, Femat (Soren Fulton) and Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens). Can this inexperienced trio take on a hardcore criminal and his henchmen and live to tell about it? We shall see…
There. I have done my job and given you a bit of information about what Thunderbirds is about, and honestly, as bad as this film is, it is more than I wanted to do. What I really want to do is spend some time convincing you why it is not worth your time, and why ill-conceived and half-hearted projects like this should not be supported by our hard-earned dollars.
So, where do I begin? Maybe we should begin before the first frame of film rolled, for now that I think about it, this project was probably doomed from the start. Really, how does a filmmaker give rise to warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic memories for a generation that experienced the infancy of the space program, and also manage to entertainment the more technically savvy youth of today, who are reared on computers, video games, MP3 Players, and special effects laden films? Moreover, how do you retain the charm of a kitschy show featuring puppets, when you are replacing them with actors?
Don’t get me wrong, I do not claim to know the definitive answer to these questions, but I think that this film does nowhere near enough to please either of its intended audiences. Moreover, between Frakes’ direction (or lack thereof), the unbelievably dull dialogue from screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers, and the generally weak acting, the human beings that replaced Gerry Anderson’s marionettes seem even more wooden in comparison.
To be more specific, the child actors in the film are awful, exhibiting precious little in the way of inspiration or chemistry, and the performances of their elder, more seasoned colleagues are equally poor, which is truly a shock, considering how talented some of these people are. I speak particularly of Bill Paxton, who has not been so stiff and forgettable since his brief appearance as a doomed punk rocker in The Terminator, although a large part of this has to be attributed to the horrible dialogue he was saddled with. Ben Kingsley fares a little better as the villain, but not much, and the actors charged with bringing the remainder of the Tracy brothers to life turn in some performances that can only be characterized as bad, even for a kiddie-friendly film like this.
As I mentioned earlier, an even bigger problem than the acting (for me) was that the central theme of the Thunderbirds show – the Tracy family overcoming incredible peril to save people from disaster and doom – is almost an afterthought in this film. Instead of the excitement and danger of the trademarked Tracy rescues, the film is bogged down by the generic story about Alan trying to thwart The Hood’s evil bank robbery scheme. Sadly, another important component of the old show - the grandeur of the Thunderbird vehicles being launched into action - is also largely gone, presumably to cater to the shorter attention spans of today’s youth.
Despite the film’s many inadequacies, there are a couple of worthwhile moments in Thunderbirds, almost all of which involve Sophia Myles’ saucy performance as female super-spy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward. I also liked that the vehicles’ styling, while undeniably more modern, retained many of the qualities that made them so awe-inspiring in Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation”! Then again, not only are these moments brief, but mentioning the Thunderbird vehicles reminds me that they are not nearly as much a part of the story as they should be, which was yet another letdown that I experienced while watching this film.
All in all, this whole film is a real disappointment, particularly if you are fond of the show/films this turkey was based upon. Unless you are buying this for the kids, who may enjoy the Tracy’s ships and gadgets, do yourself a favor and pick up the Thunderbirds: International Rescue Edition 2-pack that was released earlier this year. It is far more F-A-B than this poor excuse for a film could ever hope of being!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Universal Home Video presents Thunderbirds in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1), which has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen displays, and let me tell you that as bad as the film is, its visuals are appealing, and the transfer renders them nicely. To begin with, since this was a recent production, you will probably not be surprised to read this, but the image is very clean, as it is free of all but the most minor (and very infrequent) imperfections in the print.
Colors are also crisp and vibrant, especially primary colors (like pink ) and flesh tones. This is supplemented by deep, noise-free blacks, which give the image excellent shadow detail and a tangible sense of depth. Fine detail is also superb, extending deep into the background of most scenes and allowing the subtleties and intricacies of the Thunderbird vehicles to be clearly visible.
Finally, edge enhancement and digital compression artifacts never intrude on the Thunderbirds’ visuals. Thus, the transfer offers a very pleasant reproduction of the source material, and does not introduce anything into the image that should not be there. Good job Universal!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
The sounds of Thunderbirds are brought into the home via a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that certainly serves the film well. For instance, frequency response is smooth and even throughout the audible spectrum, and the soundstage exhibits a nice sense of space when it is called upon to do so. Dialogue is also reproduced in a warm, error-free manner, which allows listeners to hear every word being spoken by the film’s characters.
The surround/LFE channels are also put to good use at various points in the film, particularly when the Tracy’s Thunderbirds ships are a part of the action. All in all, for a motion picture oriented towards a younger audience, this is a pretty dynamic mix, which is almost on par with the disc’s excellent visuals.
The Thunderbirds DVD features an audio commentary by director Jonathan Frakes, who is not only quite enjoyable to listen to, but offers up a wealth of information about his film. In particular, he speaks about the casting process, the development of the plot, the visual effects that appear in the film, and many other things that should be of interest to fans.
Some other points of interest are Frakes’ discussion about the effect that test screenings had on his film, and his mention some of the sequences that were excised from the final product. If you like the film, make sure to give this track a listen!
Secrets Of Tracy Island Revealed
“Secrets” is a 9-minute featurette that provides an overview the design and construction of the Thunderbirds’ command center, with interviews by Jonathan Frakes, stars Brady Corbet, Soren Fulton, and Sophia Myles, and key members of the crew. Probably the best and most detailed of the featurettes, this extra focuses on the challenges of updating Tracy Island for its appearance in this film, via a combination of location footage (Seychelles Islands), CGI, and sets.
Lady Penelope’s Pink World
By selecting this brief (4:14) bonus feature, viewers can learn more about the high-tech gizmos used by the posh pink-loving spy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, through interviews with director Jonathan Frakes, actress Sophia Myles, and costume designer Marit Allen, among others.
Creating The Action
This nearly 8-minute featurette begins with Jonathan Frakes running through the way the “Jubilee Gardens” scene is supposed to play out, with the remainder of the time being devoted to the process of bringing his ideas to the screen, from an explanation of the initial storyboards and computer animatics onward.
Lady Penelope and Parker: Fun and Stunts
This 3-minute piece offers a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s main action sequence, particularly how the cast was prepared for it.
FAB1: More Than Just A Car
Another short featurette (3 ½ minutes), this extra describes how the filmmakers brought Lady Penelope’s FAB1, which was apparently based on the 1954 Ford Thunderbird, from concept to reality. It is somewhat interesting, especially the part about Rolls Royce not wanting to be associated with the film, but it is obviously light on detail given its length.
The music video for the song “Thunderbirds Are Go”, by the band Busted, is included.
The original theatrical trailer for Thunderbirds is included.
The disc kicks off with trailers for Two Brothers, Shark Tale, The Land Before Time X (will these ever end? ) and Balto: The Wings of Change
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Although Jonathan Frakes’ take on the Thunderbirds may appeal to younger children, I think it will be extremely disappointing for everyone else, particularly if you have any fondness whatsoever for the Gerry Anderson show/films that this film was based on. Simply put, the theme of said show was abandoned, in favor of a truly generic storyline, and the writing and acting are quite poor.
The DVD, however, is pretty well put together by the folks at Universal, as it boasts great image and sound quality and a nice compliment of extras, including a good commentary by director Jonathan Frakes, who provides plenty of information on all aspects of the production. While on the topic of extras, I must point out that although the featurettes were not unpleasant to watch, most are oriented towards the “kiddies” and do not contain very much in the way of detail.
In the final analysis, this is an easy call – yet another case of a bad, bad movie being given a pretty good treatment on DVD! As such, unless you are getting this one for a younger child that enjoys this sort of film, I am hard pressed to recommend anything beyond a rental – if that. I would suggest sticking with the original Thunderbids instead, for Gerry Anderson’s wooden marionettes have much more life than the characters in this film!