As Pinocchio taught us, the transformation from puppet to flesh and blood is not an easy one, and the arrival of TV's "Thunderbirds" in live-action land is a particularly bumpy ride. Ostensibly based on the Gerry Anderson "Supermarionation" action series from the 1960s, the new film borrows its basic setup before quickly deep-sixing International Rescue in favor of a feeble "Spy Kids" imitation.
The five Tracy brothers, each named for one of the Mercury astronauts, live with their billionaire father, Jeff (Bill Paxton), a retired astronaut, on remote Tracy Island somewhere in the South Pacific, from which International Rescue launches its lifesaving missions. The rugged big heads and caterpillar eyebrows of the TV puppets have been replaced by youth and generic good looks on the order of the world's blandest boy band.
The four older boys -- John, Gordon, Virgil and Scott -- along with their dad, operate the five Thunderbird machines, which must have seemed pretty fantastical 40 years ago but now look quaintly retro.
The youngest Tracy, Alan (Brady Corbet), bristles at the fact that he isn't a full-fledged Thunderbird, and his daydreams get him into trouble at boarding school. Whisked home by family friend Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) for spring break with his best friend, Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of the T-Birds' technical whiz, Brains (a stammering Anthony Edwards), Alan gets grounded for fooling around with one of the crafts, confirming his dad's belief that he's not yet mature enough to be part of International Rescue.
Ben Kingsley plays the film's villain, the Hood, a mind-control freak who holds a major grudge against Jeff Tracy.
The majority of the movie, directed by Jonathan Frakes, is devoted to kid power high jinks as Alan, Fermat and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), the daughter of the Tracys' housekeepers, do battle with the Hood and his evildoers. Aside from a couple of rescue set pieces that bookend it, the film is strictly low-wattage in terms of action.
Kingsley, Myles and Edwards play things strictly for laughs, but they seem to have wandered in from the Austin Powers movies. Myles' Lady P in particular, a perkier, less dangerous Emma Peel-type secret agent, is deeply rooted in the "Thunderbirds' " swinging '60s pedigree. Despite the T-Birds' frequent use of "F.A.B.," a sort of all purpose A-OK response, Myles' presence plays less than fab.
The producers seem fairly enamored of the original show, particularly in their willingness to stick to the basic design of the rescue vehicles -- the series' real stars. However, in their zeal to reach the tweener audience reared on Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids," they've sold out the franchise. Which just goes to show that even the best intentions can have strings attached.
These "Thunderbirds" are definitely not go.
MPAA rating: PG for intense action sequences and language
Times guidelines: The flying phallic symbols and sexual innuendo will likely go by the film's target audience
Brady Corbet...Alan Tracy
Vanessa Anne Hudgens...Tin-Tin
Bill Paxton...Jeff Tracy
Ben Kingsley...The Hood
Sophia Myles...Lady Penelope
Universal Pictures and Studio Canal present a Working Title production, released by Universal. Director Jonathan Frakes. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam. Executive producers Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin. Screenplay by William Osborne and Michael McCullers, story by Peter Hewitt and William Osborne. Cinematographer Brendan Galvin. Editor Martin Walsh. Costume designer Marit Allen. Music Hans Zimmer. Production designer John Beard. Set decorator Joanne Woolard. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.