It’s probably best to get the bare facts on the table here: if you love the 1960s puppet-based shows of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, you will be utterly enthralled by this feature-length documentary which retells the years they spent pioneering televisual puppetry with their unique style dubbed ‘Supermarionation’ (note to the uninitiated: that’s short for Super Marionette Animation, and not an allusion to a whole country of Italian plumbers rescuing princesses). If Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet were never really your thing, however, you might be left a little in the cold.
Indeed, this is by-the-fans-for-the-fans filmmaking of the highest regard. ‘Lovingly made’ doesn’t quite capture how much care and craftsmanship has been channelled into producing these two hours spent treasuring the televisual treats of old.
The film, directed by Stephen La Rivière (and based on his book of the same name), is a veritable feast of nostalgia. It blends stock footage of the shows, insightful talking heads from the productions, snazzy animations to keep the pace (mostly) up, and – best of all – some brand new Thunderbirds material featuring Lady Penelope, Parker and Brains.
These scenes, which feature (presumably newly-made) super-marionette puppets and joyful returns to former favourites by the original voice cast, frame the story magically. The central conceit of their scenes is that Parker has somehow stumbled upon La Rivière’s real-world Filmed In Supermarionation book (which features his own conception and development) and is now having – as Lady Penelope puts it – “an existential crisis.”
The pair decide to keep reading anyway, which we’re very grateful for. They guide us through the story of how the Andersons mastered their own unique brand of storytelling, rose to the heights of the televisual world, had a stab at feature films, and sadly eventually fell out of fashion. Seeing these characters in modern HD, visiting the sets of all the AP Films shows – with Brains chipping in from his Tracey Island base with vital factual knowledge – is simply joyous to watch.
Also chiming winningly with this writer was the interaction between all the living and willing talent from behind the scenes at AP Films. La Rivière has gone to great lengths to showcase his appreciation to the creators of his favourite shows, and it really pays off with some truly heart-warming moments.
As an example, the filmmaker guides the original team to the site of their former studio at one point, with a brilliant treat in store. Then, he surprises them with a complete working set, which he has recreated. “Good God, that’s a surprise!” is one of the responses. Clearly overjoyed, the team then show us how they used to work, revealing some of their brilliantly British ‘make do and mend’ techniques in a series of candid, and highly funny, interviews.
Our favourites of these techniques include filming through a fish tank to nail the underwater effect, weighing Super Car down with stones because it wouldn’t splash right and cobbling together the sets with items found in the local shops. Once seen, the lemon squeezer in Thunderbird 1’s base cannot be unseen.
Contrastingly but just as enjoyably, there are also some insights into some truly ingenious production ideas here. Learning how they managed the explosions, flying scenes and fiddly hand movements – as well as seeing the intricate electrics inside a Supermarionation puppet’s head – does make for very interesting educational viewing. Making puppets walk convincingly, though? That’s just impossible, it would seem.
It’s not a perfect film. By trying to cram nine years of productions (and loads of background detail) into two hours, the pacing sometimes drags. As a result of squeezing too much in, we sometimes go a while without a snazzy animation or a Parker/Penelope sequence and instead receive a splurge of information from stock footage and TV-documentary style caption bars at the bottom of the page. The ending, as you might expect, is hardly upbeat.
Regardless, this is an absolute treat for those with fond memories of the Supermarionation productions. It feels like it could have benefitted from leaving a bit of filler on the cutting room floor, but the attention-to-detail that they opted for instead will no doubt thrill super-fans.
In summary, we loved this nostalgia trip and would recommend it to anyone who’s ever hidden behind the sofa from the Mysterons or wished that they could fly in Thunderbird 1. With the Muppets enjoying a resurgence in recent years, is a Thunderbirds special – back in Supermarionation format – really too much to hope for?
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