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Case Number 05945

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Thunderbirds

Universal // 2004 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // January 11th, 2005

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All Rise...

Despite the scowls of the critics and the clattering of the masses, Judge Dennis Prince says Thunderbirds are GO!

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Best Of Thunderbirds: The Favorite Episodes (published July 28th, 2004), Thunderbirds: 40th Anniversary Collector's Megaset (published January 28th, 2008), and Thunderbirds: International Rescue Edition (published August 19th, 2004) are also available.

The Charge

Thunderbirds are GO!

Opening Statement

I had strings
But now I'm free
There are no strings on me.

Perhaps Disney's boy puppet wouldn't mind lending a few lines of his liberating lyrics to some high-powered peers who spent the past four decades suspended from strings and operating sticks. Now, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's legendary International Rescue team is ready to truly break free in this live-action adventure, featuring the heroic Tracy family, their magnificent island headquarters, and, yes, all of their incredible rescue vehicles.

Thunderbirds are GO!

Facts of the Case

Young Alan Tracy (Brady Corbett, Thirteen) is a bright, energetic, and highly eligible young adult who can't seem to focus on his schooling. Instead, he daydreams of someday joining his father, billionaire former astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton, Twister), and his four brothers as a member of the famed and highly-regarded International Rescue team—i.e. becoming a Thunderbird. His undeniable aptitude is matched only by his impetuous and youthful nature, causing him to remain on the outs and not yet deserving of being added to the IR team.

Elsewhere, the evil Hood (Ben Kingsley, Ghandi) is plotting another of his diabolical schemes, this time seeking to commandeer the magnificent Tracy Island and use its host of remarkable rescue vehicles to rob the world's banks. Duped into responding to an emergency at IR's Thunderbird 5 space satellite, Jeff Tracy and his sons find themselves adrift in space after the Hood infiltrates the Tracy Island command center and renders the IR team's Thunderbird 3 space rocket inoperable.

"Who will rescue the rescuers?"

Alan happens to be visiting the island during his Spring Break and witnesses the Hood and his henchmen as they begin to execute their evil deed. Joined by young genius Fermat (Soren Fulton) and the spunky Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), Alan proceeds to carry out the long-standing Tracy mission: to help people in trouble, to save his family, and to stop the evil Hood.

"Time to Thunderize."

The Evidence

Well sure it's a bit corny, and even frequently hokey, but it's fun, too. Grab a tub of popcorn and a box of Junior Mints and watch as Thunderbirds sets out to achieve its mission: providing untainted family entertainment that combines all the nostalgic detail of Gerry Anderson's original SuperMarionation series of the 1960s with all the reasonably titillating boy-band beefcake enticements of today's youth culture (blissfully minus the tiresome toilet humor).

Beginning with the opening credits, a cleverly animated sequence created by the same team responsible for the main titles of 2002's Catch Me If You Can, the audience can see that this will be an adventurous romp full of daring-do, dry wit, and color…lots of color. Fans of the original television series will enjoy the attention to detail here as they're welcomed back to Tracy Island, true to its original design yet with appropriate modifications to match today's concepts of technology and modernism. Still, the retracting swimming pool, the breakaway library, the collapsing palm trees, and every other nifty innovation we marveled at in the original show is here, and it all looks terrific (there are several other homages to the original show, too; keep your eyes peeled for them). As for the various Thunderbird ships, they're practically spot-on recreations of Gerry Anderson's terrific hardware, all now beautifully rendered in the most convincing CGI I've seen (only one sequence of Thunderbird 1 landing in London's Jubilee Garden betrays the presence of a computer-generated composite; all others look simply stunning).

The heroic trio of young heroes offers an updated feel to capture the attention of today's youth. Brady Corbet as Alan Tracy has all the earmarks of boy-band appeal with his striking blue eyes, blemish-free complexion, and flyaway 'do. In fact, he winds up looking more like a slightly younger Aaron Carter than a Gerry Anderson marionette. Soren Fulton as brainy Fermat sports thickly-rimmed yet quasi-hip looking blue-framed eyeglasses immediately reminiscent of those worn by Brains, the technical whiz from the original show. (In the film, Brains is actually Fermat's dad.) Last is Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Tintin, a rather thinly stretched adaptation of the character from the original series. Here, Tintin is a teenager full of spunk and plenty of girl-power attitude (which never becomes truly obnoxious, mind you). Together, the three embody the same sort of youthful anticipation, adaptability, and sometimes goofy interplay that marked Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids fame.

With the younger viewers offered a set of relatable characters, fans of the original show will enjoy the collection of key actors who round out the adult cast. Perennial adventure actor Bill Paxton puts on a rock-solid demeanor as the Tracy father (though without the head of wavy graying hair we'd known from his puppeteered counterpart), full of bravado with just the right amount of caring and compassion. Anthony Edwards (Top Gun, E.R.) shows up as Brains, complete with comedic stutter. Ben Kingsley as The Hood is simply excellent, devouring the role of the wicked yet dryly witty criminal mastermind, providing a hiss-worthy baddie who never becomes too evil. (It's a family show, remember?) Sophia Myles plays the perpetually pink Lady Penelope and does so with a fine balance of elegance, charm, and combative capability. It's Ron Cook (Chocolat) who really steals the show here as the droll yet dynamic manservant, Parker. He actually recreates the look of the original marionette perfectly and is a pleasure to behold from start to finish. While it might seem inevitable that such a varied cast could get out of hand, or one of the veteran actors could emerge to easily upstage all others, director Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: The Next Generation's own Commander William T. Riker) balances his characters beautifully and coaxes some terrific performances out of every last one of them. It's evident that all involved were enjoying themselves throughout the shoot (which Frakes confirms during the disc's running commentary).

But this is no character study; it's a sci-fi action-adventure picture. Therefore, we're quickly thrust into our first big action sequence, involving an explosive oil platform, with plenty of tasty eye candy on display of the sort we've come to expect of a Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay outing. As fireballs explode all around five trapped workers, three of the impressive Thunderbird rescue crafts arrive to save the day (and without the overplayed heroics or untimely tragic coincidences that often afflict an Armageddon-like drama). The film continues with plenty more great effects sequences showcasing all of the Thunderbird craft, as well as Lady Penelope's pink wonder, the rocket-powered FAB1 limousine. Although the film runs just over the prescribed 90-minute duration, it seems to play much faster, thanks to a very tight script and a rapid-fire rollout of satisfying effects sequences and high-octane action. To that end the film succeeds in true Tracy fashion, hitting its target square on the bullseye with not a moment wasted. Frakes clearly understands and is energetic about the material here. He displays the savvy to meld both old-school and present-day sensibilities into a picture that should please both crowds: Thunderbirds purists and today's teens and 'tweens.

With this new DVD from Universal Home Video, Thunderbirds comes roaring into your viewing room. It begins with a beautiful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is crisp enough to reveal every last detail, yet is thankfully free of excessive edge enhancement or other such video artifacting. Contrast is managed extremely well, black levels are velvety smooth and well controlled, and the vibrant colors practically pop from your screen but never smear or bleed. The audio sounds great in an active Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that makes good use of directional effects, front and rear, and will put your subwoofer to work (I only wish a DTS track had been included as well). There's a ship-load of bonus features to be found beginning with a highly informative audio commentary by Director Frakes. Although he maintains a rather monotone style in his comments, he provides a non-stop stream of information about the production, and is highly complimentary of cast and crew throughout. (As a side note, it's clear that Frakes is aware of the poor reception the picture received during its very short theatrical run; his observations seem to convey a bit of befuddlement over why so many critics took exception to his very good-natured and well-executed picture.) The extras continue with five featurettes, each exploring a distinct element of the production, including many behind-the-scenes looks at the computer graphics, the impressive sets, and the various action sequences. There's a music video of the title theme performed by the UK pop/punk band, Busted, a theatrical trailer, and some DVD-ROM content. In all, the extra features provide another fine balance of insider content that complements the main feature at hand.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Well, after enjoying Thunderbirds so much, I, too, am befuddled by the fact that so many other folks—critics and casual movie-goers—seemed to pan it so heavily. I'm not blind to the fact that the picture spends an inordinate amount of time on the young heroes instead of featuring the rest of the Tracy clan (perhaps at the insistence of studio executives who were intent on appealing to their target teen audience); this is a shame, really, since many of us familiar with the show would prefer more time with Tracy brothers Scott, John, Virgil, and Gordon. Still, realizing the need to connect with the current batch of young film fans, it's understandable and pardonable that we see more of the dreamy-eyed youngsters rather than spending 90 minutes reveling in nostalgia that today's kids might not understand.

Sadly, Thunderbirds only earned roughly $22 million worldwide, falling well short of even recovering half its $57 million production budget. Surely there's plenty of room for improvement, script-wise; a sequel could focus on the rest of the Tracy team. Frakes hints at a possible sequel (maybe even something direct to video—my words, not his). Hopefully he would be willing to take the director's chair again, as he clearly has an infectious enthusiasm for the material.

Closing Statement

Although many said Thunderbirds was a misfire, I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed so thoroughly. Within its first 20 minutes, I realized it was a picture to be taken for fun that would be brimming with kid-friendly fare. With that in mind, I say give the picture a good look, enjoy its non-offensive style, and get ready a fun ride.

The Verdict

Thunderbirds are GO. All involved in this fun film and excellent DVD release are free to go as well. F-A-B and case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 91
Extras: 87
Acting: 89
Story: 91
Judgment: 74

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Genres:
• Action
• All Ages
• Science Fiction

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by Director Jonathan Frakes
• Five "Making of" Featurettes
• Music Video
• Theatrical Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb
• Official Site








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