(2004) * 1/2 Pg
94 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Jonathan Frakes. Cast: Sophia Myles, Bill Paxton, Philip Winchester, Lex Shrapnel, Dominic Colenso.

In Universal Pictures' expensive-looking adaptation of the popular 1960s British series Thunderbirds, the astronaut adventurers of the International Rescue Fleet cheerily assure each other "F.A.B.!" As on Gerry Anderson's series, "F.A.B." is an unexplained exhortation (Anderson later explained that it simply abbreviated the popular use of the word "fabulous"). To watch the awkward new Thunderbirds movie is likewise to feel a bit baffled, left out, not in on the joke.

As directed by Jonathan Frakes and scripted by William Osborne (The Scorpion King) and Michael McCullers (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), Thunderbirds establishes a premise of initial exclusion and eventual inclusion, in the hopes of initiating an audience which has never heard of the Thunderbirds. A young audience's entry into the story is Alan Tracy, played by Brady Corbet of Thirteen. The youngest of the Tracy family—which secretly constitutes International Rescue—Alan has knowledge but lacks experience with the five high-tech vessels overseen by his widowed billionaire father Jeff and four older brothers from their South Pacific home on Tracy Island. The mopey Alan gives new meaning to being "grounded" by one's father as he watches his family take to the skies.

At the outset, Alan and best bud Fermat (Soren Fulton) get a break from boarding school. Transported back to Tracy Island by secret-agent family friend Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sophia Myles) and her faithful manservant Parker (Ron Cook), the boys and "blossoming" girl-friend Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) soon become the only hope to save the Tracy family. When super-villain The Hood (Sir Ben Kingsley) wreaks revenge on Jeff Tracy by luring the IR into an outer-space deathtrap. At this point, Thunderbirds becomes another rehash of resourceful (pre)teen cat-and-mouse pictures like Masterminds, Toy Soldiers, and their granddaddy, Taps. Thunderbirds also invites unfavorable comparison to the energetic Spy Kids series, though this movie is marginally better than Catch That Kid, from earlier this year.

Thunderbirds alienates the nostalgia crowd by sidelining the IR for most of the movie; one supposes a more interesting plot would spring from putting the ornate, brightly-colored ships to more thorough use. As it is, Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and his four elder sons are interchangeable plastic play-pals. I'm still not sure if their bad acting is an intentionally wooden homage to Anderson's Supermarionation (super marionette animation, for you squares); Thunderbirds was an action puppet show in its former life. The picture gets a second wind in the last twenty minutes as the kids, now de facto IR members one step ahead of the IR cavalry, commandeer air and sea crafts to rescue London monorail riders and thwart The Hood's bank-job rampage.

Like the remake of The Avengers, Thunderbirds can't get it together, but not for lack of campy color. Myles is a hoot as Lady P, with her bright-pink FAB1 rocket-car and Emma Peel moves, and the inexplicable Kingsley feels his acting oats playing telekenetic in a red velvet kimono. Hans Zimmer's lackluster score marries the TV theme to Zimmer's own bombastic fanfares, while Osborne and McCullers stir a teamwork theme celebrated by the catch-phrase "Thunderbirds are go!" and interminable repetitions of "F.A.B.!" The dialogue doesn't get much more sophisticated. "Saving lives is a dangerous business," intones Paxton, "but it's what we do."

Frakes, an actor-director from the Star Trek camp, sets the absurd tone with an ill-advised cartoon title sequence, but his talent for staging science-fiction action fails to overcome the chase-capture-escape repetition which weighs down the film's midsection. Midway through, Frakes hits the point of no creative return when he allows the kids to spray The Hood's henchman and henchwoman with fluorescent green goop. Frakes succumbs to his worst instincts by adding Saturday-morning-cartoon sound effects to a slapstick fight and allowing Anthony Edwards to mug shamelessly as Fermat's stutterin' scientist pop, Brains Hackenbacker. As a kiddie adventure, Thunderbirds could be worse; nevertheless, it's a mostly forgettable missed opportunity for a kid's action franchise.

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