Retro Review: Thunderbirds

Back in the 1960s, puppeteer and sci-fi pioneer Gerry Anderson created a beloved children’s series that developed a cult following and can still be seen on TV today.

His little series that could was the high-action rescue series, “Thunderbirds” which followed the adventures of a family of marionettes in the distant future. They were the Tracys.

What made Anderson’s series stand out from the rest of the shows on TV was his use of a technique he called “Supermarionation”. This use of puppets in a major television show predates Jim Henson but paved the way for puppets in other forms of television shows. Kids also adored Gerry’s world of puppet characters and adventures.

Anderson also used his “Supermarionation” to spawn other puppet-fueled shows like “Fireball XL-5”, “Stingray”, “Supercar” and of course “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”.

Now in 2004, Gerry Anderson’s legacy is expanding with a new “Captain Scarlet” series in the making for 2005 and a new feature film made from his classic series, “Thunderbirds”.

In the new feature film of Thunderbirds, Bill Paxton plays astronaut-billionaire patriarch, Jeff Tracy who heads an elite rescue unit staffed by his 5 sons. The unit is stationed in a remote island in the South Pacific but when the world needs to be rescued the Tracys jump into their magnificent machines and become, Thunderbirds.

In this new live-action tale conceived by screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers, the Tracys must save son John Tracy (Lex Shrapnel) when Thunderbird 5, the Tracy’s orbiting satellite is disabled in a sneak attack.

As they rescue John, their base of operations is taken over by a sinister villain known as The Hood (Ben Kingsley) and the only people that seem to be able to help the Tracys and their base are three junior Thunderbirds.

The juniors consist of the youngest Tracy, Alan (Brady Corbet), Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), daughter of the island caretaker Kyrano and Fermat (Soren Fulton), son of the team’s science whiz, Brains (Anthony Edwards).

There have always been a lot of problems with bringing a classic cartoon series to the big screen. There is the casting, the look of the film and of course the jokes. Can the same cartoon styled humor work in a live-action setting?

In the case of “Thunderbirds”, we have a faithful translation and realization of what and who these characters are. It is in that faithful transition that we can find so much enjoyment.

For example the portrayals of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her driver Parker (Ron Cook) are so like their marionette counter-parts that I could actually visualize the puppets saying their lines. They were such amazing performances.

Then there are the vehicles, aided heavily by CGI, are direct duplicates of the ones from the series. It is amazing how they made these zany vehicles feel so real. I especially loved the look and feel of Thunderbird 2.

The junior Thunderbirds are a clever idea so that such a classic concept can be exposed to a new generation of fans. This concept has gone horribly wrong in previous attempts but this time it just feels right.

Some of the problems I had did have come from bringing cartoon characters to the big screen and that the film is geared towards a younger audience. But that is exactly where the series aimed and succeeded.

“Thunderbirds” is a fast, delightful and stylized family film that not only embraces the audiences of the past but also enlightens audiences of the future.

I wonder what Gerry Anderson thinks?

(4 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

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