To say that the 2004 Thunderbirds movie is disliked is an understatement, and even now, it’s regarded as a missed opportunity. So, what went wrong? Did the film do anything right? Most importantly, can Thunderbirds be rescued?
The film is based on the iconic 1965 puppet series of the same name, created by the then-husband-and-wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Thunderbirds was Gerry Anderson’s seventh puppet series, and came between his two other most iconic shows, Stingray and Captain Scarlet. Although Thunderbirds only ran for just over a year, it left a lasting legacy. Those nostalgic embers were fanned back to full flame by the repeat season on the BBC from 1991.
The series tapped into the nostalgia of adults and captivated a whole new audience of children, becoming a craze, with Tracy Island toys selling out and Blue Peter famously showing viewers how to create their own.
A year later, the production of a full-blown live action film was first mooted. For the next decade, it wallowed in development with various names attached to it, including at one point the Baldwin brothers as the Tracy boys. However, things didn’t progress until Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek’s Captain Riker), signed on to direct in 2002. The result, which had been re-focused on a younger audience by Universal, had a mountain to climb to win over nostalgic public perceptions and ultimately left most disappointed.
The unfriendly reception was largely due to the decision to largely lessen the role of the magnificent mannequins in their flying machines, and focus instead on a group of children – Alan (Brady Corbet), Tin-Tin (Vanessa Hudgens) and some never seen before kid called Fermat (Soren Fulton).
This in turn leads to a number of issues that simply undermine the very point of the Thunderbirds as a vehicle for International Rescue. First, it means we don’t see enough of the futuristic gadgets and action that were core to the series. Similarly, it means that the themes of the fall and salvation of science are almost completely forgotten. It seems that these principles of the original series are sacrificed in the name of making the property much more child-orientated – complete with gurning goons and slapstick sound effects.
However, the 2004 film wasn’t the first Thunderbirds film, and it wasn’t even the first attempt at re-inventing the series for modern audiences. Indeed, back at the peak of the original series’ popularity, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had their first crack at a film with Thunderbirds Are Go (1966). It was a surprising commercial failure, which its makers blamed on the on-going series still being on television. However, the follow-up film Thunderbird 6 (1968), which had an 18 month cushion from the TV series, did not fare any better.
The flaw with Thunderbirds Are Go more likely comes from the fact that rather than being a feature film, it instead comes across as a well-padded TV series episode – complete with a Cliff Richard musical fantasy sequence. Thunderbird 6 was more cinematic, but was criticised for lacking action and under using the iconic elements of the series – not dissimilar criticisms to those the 2004 film has received.
Other revival attempts, like the Japanese animated series Thunderbirds 2086 and Turbocharged Thunderbirds (1994), stray even further from the source material.
After considering this, not only does the 2004 film not seem to be quite such a travesty, but a couple of genuine positives can also be found. First is the evident respect and love that it has for the original series. There are plenty of knowing but affectionate jokes, plus most of the design updates are very reverential to the originals, especially the Thunderbird machines themselves, with the exception of TB4, which to be fair looks better than the original. A lot was made of Lady Penelope’s limousine being a Ford rather than a Rolls, but given the fact that Rolls Royce would not agree to be in the film, that the limo is based on a Ford Thunderbird is actually a great idea for a fallback.
From the beginning title sequence with the credits being ‘rescued’ by Thunderbird 4, there is also a strong sense of fun to the film. Indeed, the plot to attack Tracy Island by the Hood seems to have come straight from the pages of the TV21 comic books of 1966. Despite not being a faithful to the tone and themes of the TV series, comic strips like Tracy Island Exposed, Brains Is Dead and The End For International Rescue really excited some target audience readers in both the 60s and 90s.
It’s the film’s patronising view of its child audience that unfortunately leads the film into silly slapstick territory. This has largely led Thunderbirds to be compared to the 2001 film Spy Kids, which also has kid characters taking on their parents’ heroic sci-fi mantle. The other big success of the early 2000s, Harry Potter, may also be seen to have a notable influence on the film, though, with the concept of a boy at home thrust into an adventurous world at school reversed for Alan Tracy. The trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron could conceivably have provided inspiration for Fermat’s addition to the cast.
Given the success of the Harry Potter series and the prequel feel of the 2004 film compared to the Thunderbirds series, it is not too radical to envisage that Frakes was positioning his film as the start of a small movie franchise, which would build towards the series elements we knew. It is easy to imagine the treatment for a sequel, with Alan having begun serving on the main team, resulting in a film with more International Rescue action and themes closer to the puppet series.
This would afford the opportunity to have the original pilot and machine line-up, and maybe even introduce the classic uniforms. Perhaps it’s a shame the series never got this chance, as there would certainly be potential there, and a movie franchise entertaining its youthful audience with the heroic possibilities of science is no bad thing.
Yet this only really serves to remind us of the wasted potential of the series. It can be argued that purely as a film, it’s actually quite a fun romp. Even as a Thunderbirds film, it isn’t really that bad in the context of the franchise’s previous appearances on the silver screen.
Despite many decent performances (like Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope) the clowning henchmen do drag the tone from engaging children’s adventure to frustratingly infantile. Even though Ben Kingsley manages to restore some menace to proceedings, even he hams it up on occasion, too.
Where the Harry Potter film franchise succeeded in fleshing out its amazing universe and characters, the Thunderbirds film fails to develop its world sufficiently. Indeed, the rest of the Tracy brothers are, Bill Paxton’s Jeff Tracy aside, nearly indistinguishable from each other, with no development and little distinguishing character. This only further draws attention to the lack of focus on International Rescue, making for a painfully hollow Thunderbirds film.
The only salvation that can be found in Thunderbirds is that it is one of the better attempts at re-inventing the franchise and bringing it to the cinema. In that context, it’s actually quite fun, yet it is ultimately still an opportunity missed. No one has made a great Thunderbirds movie yet, but if you want to see one, then this 2004 attempt is entertaining enough. But if you’re after a pure Thunderbirds fix, you’d probably be better off watching two of the original episodes instead.
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