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Ultra-campy marionettes come to blah life in director Jonathan Frakes' souped-up but poorly written adaptation of the cult English sci-fi kids' show.


For a few years in the '60s and '70s, producer Gerry Anderson made ''supermarionation'' all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series, most memorably Thunderbirds, which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island, the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now, 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut, Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet), who dreams of the day he, too, can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father, Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him, Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!


It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff, to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan, to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood, and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad, Brains. But actors are only as good as their script, and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best, filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. ''You can't save everyone,'' Jeff tells his son somberly, and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: ''This is hard on all of us, Alan.'' Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more, even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias, Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook), Lady Penelope is a fresh, feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car, to boot.


Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact, so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately, while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets, cool ships, and special effects (which are fine, if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery), Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood, he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch), rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic, Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If, on the other hand, Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids, he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space), rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is, he's stuck somewhere in the middle, leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.

Bottom Line

Cool ships and a delightful, pink-clad bombshell can't mask the fact that these Thunderbirds are not go.