If you happened to be the right age in the mid-1960s -- let's say 7 -- and happened to be awake at the right time on Saturday mornings, you might have stumbled across a couple of bizarre British kiddie shows set in the retro-gizmo future and peopled entirely by marionettes.
Shot in "Supermarionation," "Fireball XL-5" and "Thunderbirds" featured heroes who looked like sentient bobbleheads and rocket ships that were no less cool for being clearly only 14 inches long. My sisters and I watched the shows in perplexed fascination, if only to better imitate the characters' jerky movements as we followed our parents around the house.
Forty years after the fact, and for no good reason whatsoever, someone has seen fit to make a live-action version of "Thunderbirds." The script is puerile. The sets are almost as ticky-tacky as on the TV show. The acting, for the most part, is as wooden as you can get without actually being a marionette. Not only did the 7-year-old boy inside me have a high old time, so did the 7-year-old daughter sitting next to me.
Maybe it's not a defensible critical position, but the reason "Thunderbirds" works as well as it does is because it doesn't much care that it's as square as a potholder. (Also: cool rocket-cars. This is important.) Hewing closely to the original TV series, the film gives us a Bill Paxton shorn of all discernible personality as Jeff Tracy, a millionaire ex-astronaut who lives with his five or six sons (I lost count) on a secret high-tech island from which they venture forth in supersonic vehicles to rescue people in distress. "Saving lives is a dangerous business, but it's what we do," says Jeff, and Paxton, bless him, never once winks to let us know he's above a line like that.
Jeff's youngest son, Alan (Brady Corbet), is an impetuous teen back from school with his dorky best friend, Fermatt (Soren Fulton), son of Tracy Sr.'s dorky mechanical whiz, Brain (Anthony Edwards). There are apparently only two types of men in the world of "Thunderbirds," and you'd better pray you don't belong to the one that wears glasses.
The Tracys maintain five "Thunderbirds" of different shapes and purposes: T1 is a silver rocket ship, T2 a frog-green flying saucer, T5 an orbiting space station, and so forth. I'm not going to speculate what the insurance runs to, but it would surely be higher if Alan were allowed to drive. He's not, and it has him in a snit.
In the midst of all this, like the Mona Lisa at a yard sale, is Sir Ben Kingsley. He plays The Hood, a fiendish criminal mastermind given to eyeliner and red kimonos who somehow gets all the manly Tracy men stranded on the space station while he sets about using the Thunderbirds to rob the world's banks. Presumably to buy more eyeliner. I'd like to say that Kingsley stoops to the occasion and has fun, but he seems paralyzed by the character's resemblance to Mike Myers as Dr. Evil and merely uses his unblinking gaze to control the minds of others. Which is, let's face it, what the actor's been doing since "Gandhi."
Up against The Hood and his minions are the kids, Alan, Fermatt, and Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) -- no, not the little Belgian lad but the know-it-all daughter of the Tracys' domestic staff. Surprisingly, it's the girls who have the most fun in "Thunderbirds." Tintin is far more capable than either of her friends, and the film picks up whenever Sophia Myles is onscreen as Lady Penelope, the titled and teddibly droll fashion plate who functions as an adjunct Tracy (her hot-pink amphibious car serves as an unofficial T6).
On the series, Lady P. looked as much like Julie Christie as a puppet could without getting slapped with a lawsuit. Myles honors that spirit with a Carnaby Street unflappability and mad kickboxing skills that keep "Thunderbirds" cruising even when Saturday matinee cliches swamp the last 20 minutes. When all is said and done, the movie's a steaming plate of corn -- and, indeed, that's part of the pleasure. Myles, though, delivers a fine comic performance with no strings attached.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Jonathan Frakes
Written by: Peter Hewitt, William Osborne, Michael McCullers
Starring: Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley,
Brady Corbet, Anthony Edwards, Sophia Myles, Soren Fulton, Vanessa Anne Hudgens
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 94 minutes
Rated: PG (intense action sequences, language)