There are people out there who really, really don’t like the 2004 Thunderbirds movie. Few of those people are in the movie’s target audience of kids. To be sure, it’s a film that groans under the weight of compromise. Jonathan Frakes, who had the unenviable job of directing the movie, was serving far too many cooks with far too many ideas. I think that objectively, Frakes, who is a really talented director, might have made the best film that he possibly could under the weight of awful, awful studio interference.
To be clear, this is a long way removed from the original series, and the mammoth decision to de-age Alan and Tintin (they’re played by 16 year-old Brady Corbet and 15 year-old Vanessa Hudgens, who was two years away from stardom in Disney’s High School Musical series) and give Brains a young son called Fermat, and make them the stars is… an odd one. The problem is that there had been these hugely successful movies called Spy Kids, and that’s what Universal wanted out of this: an action movie for children with teenage leads.
Of slightly less import, there was the peculiar change to Lady Penelope’s car, FAB-1. As I understand it, everybody involved just took it for granted that Rolls-Royce would love to resume their association with Thunderbirds, and they were completely stumped how to proceed without them. Then somebody remembered that Ford made a car called a Thunderbird, and what happened next was a see-it-to-believe it level of product placement. You want to talk about shattering the suspension of disbelief? Ford sponsors the news in this movie!
Okay, so the studio has decided to make these kids the focus, and some dimwit has made the decision to paint Brady Corbet’s lips such a deep and ugly red that Alan would still be the focus if the lights were out. That means that the script needs to sideline the rest of the Tracys. It doesn’t entirely matter, as Scott, Virgil, Gordon, and John are given absolutely nothing to do that any or all of the others couldn’t do, and they’re portrayed by and portrayed as completely anonymous bros. John’s the only one of the four who gets even one line without one of the others, and we’re only certain that’s John because he’s in the satellite. The Hood launches a missile at Thunderbird 5, and Jeff, Scott, Virgil, and Gordon launch to rescue him in Thunderbird 3, not knowing that the Hood and his associates are right offshore and shut down control of the satellite from Earth. So only the kids can save the day.
Daniel mostly enjoyed the movie, but the steady drive of one bad thing after another complicated his desire to keep watching. There are some daring escapes, and some delightfully kid-friendly action. Some firefighting foam has much the same effect as Nickelodeon slime or gak, and he just loved seeing some of the baddies encased in that. He enjoyed the launch sequences, which are all done much, much quicker than in the show, although he did add “that looked different!” every time. And he really loved the fights.
The best little bit in the movie involves one of the Hood’s villains, played by Deobia Oparei. Perhaps bizarrely, this actor has not appeared in Doctor Who despite a perfect “man who can beat up anybody” look that surely that program’s casting directors would find useful. Anyway, Oparei warns Lady Penelope that he knows this martial art and knows this martial art and knows this fighting style. Penelope replies “I know Parker.” Parker replies “Milady.” Yes, there are cosmetic changes as well as deep, deep differences between the show and this movie, but that is just plain perfect Thunderbirds.
Penelope and Parker are, by leagues, the best things about this movie. They’re played by Sophia Myles – and, two years later, she would have a very memorable role in Who – and by Ron Cook – who was on Who three weeks after Myles – and they are freaking fantastic. Their FAB-1 may be a Ford and it may fly, but those two came straight from the TV series. Myles and Cook get the voices and the characterizations and the movements just right.
The second best thing is that the movie gave us what Gerry Anderson – who was quoted, wherever possible, as hating the movie – never did, and that’s a showdown with the Hood. He’s played by Ben Kingsley, and it was great to finally put a proper name to the face for Daniel. For months, he’s called the villain “that bad guy in Thunderbirds with the glowing eyes and bald head,” which is a bit long. I had a blast leaning over to tell him “So THAT’S his name! The Hood!” and Daniel replied with a growl.
The movie was a big flop, meaning that for all the goodwill people have for the Tracys and all the merchandise that they like to buy, there’s yet to be a successful movie in theaters. I think that British audiences stayed away after all the bad advance early press, the grumbling from Anderson, and wounded memories that the last time an American studio got behind a remake of a ’60s British cult classic, it was the 1998 Avengers with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman which only I and seventeen other people on the entire planet enjoyed, and it’s not entirely certain that I just elected to be contrary on that point. I think that Americans stayed away because we already had one Spy Kids franchise and did not need a second.
It took a few years for Jonathan Frakes’ career to recover after this disaster, and he has still not been given the keys to a sixty million dollar feature film again. He’s worked in TV pretty exclusively, and is a pretty reliable go-to guy whenever a drama hour needs a light hand behind the camera for a Star Trek spoof, as we saw in a season five episode of Castle. When Brady Corbet next appeared in a movie, it was without the visible-from-space lips.
One final note: while Daniel enjoyed the movie, he didn’t enjoy it half as much as his older brother did. Julian was seven when the film came out, and I took him and his sister to see it at the AMC Parkway Pointe in Smyrna GA. I enjoyed it all right, but what I enjoyed most was my hyperactive boy making this announcement in the corridor as we were leaving: “I can’t wait to be a father, because I’m going to take MY kids to see this movie!” Got a little something in my eye when he said that…