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Non-Review Review: Thunderbirds Are Go!

I happened to be flicking through the channels when I stumbled across Thunderbirds Are Go! For those unfamiliar with the concept, Thunderbirds is basically the television series that Trey Parker and Matt stone affectionately spoofed when making Team America: World Police (in fact, it was really the only “affectionate” part of the production). Anyway, Thunderbirds Are Go! was the series’ first attempt at a theatrical motion picture, shortly after the first season finished and shot back-to-back with the second. As far as “movies based on television shows” go, the film is essentially a feature-length regular episode. However, in this case, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

"They'll never see through my cunning disguise!"

In fairness to the original television show which aired during the sixties, even though it was filmed on a tight production budget, it never looked cheap. The series looked lavish and rich, so there’s really not that much that you’d imagine a major motion picture budget could do to offer a grander sense of scale. Of course, the film does feature on trippy dream sequence (which we’ll come to shortly) and does feature a lot of action on Mars (to tie into Gerry Anderson’s gestating Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions), but – to be honest – there’s nothing that separates this from a two-part episode. The plot is fairly straightforward rescue mission pitting the International Rescue crew against their long-term adversary the Hood, but it wouldn’t feel right to offer too major a departure from conventional stories.

You might argue that this undermines the whole point of doing a film based on a television show, and I think audiences will agree with you. The movie unfortunately tanked on initial release, which kinda makes sense. After all, why would families pay to see something in the cinema when they get it at home for free? In hindsight, I think producing the movie concurrently with the series was perhaps a bit of a mistake and a short-sighted business decision, which explains the failure. It just seems like common sense.

However, history allows us to put things in perspective. I haven’t seen a Thunderbirds episode in years, so this was great for me. Truth be told, it’s far more satisfying to watch a feature length movie rather than randomly picking one episode out of dozens. Being typical of the series is a strengthen when you have that sort of distance. It’s not necessarily “important” in the grand scheme of things, but that means that the movie makes perfect fodder for afternoon viewing on some random movie channel (unlike, say, the superb Serenity, which loses a lot of its impact once divorced from its parent show, Firefly).

Thunderbirds rocket into action...

I’ll confess that, perhaps, a lot of this fondness for the movie comes from a sense of nostalgia. I grew up with the show. When I was about six, my dad made me a paper mache model of Tracy Island. It was really cool. I think it’s still up in the attack somewhere. I’ll concede that it isn’t flawless, and that a lot of those flaws translate to the film. while there was always something going on, some of the fifty-minute episodes did feel like there had been significant amounts of padding added to them. The movie feels somewhat the same way. There are several sequences which go on longer than they should, or shouldn’t be included at all.

Hell, the famous “Alan’s dream” sequence is one of these, as much as I harbour a deep affection for it. It’s basically a trippy fantasy sequence wich exists because (a.) the movie needed to run to feature length, and they only had so much plot and (b.) because apparently somebody was looking for something to put in the movie that you wouldn’t see on television. So what we end up with is a sequence which looks almost Lynchian, but without the obvious sinister overtones. Restaurants in space, a cameo from Cliff Richard (as Cliff Richard Jr.) and the Shadows, and a crescent moon – along with the sensation of falling into the void.

At the time, it was ridiculed as an example of Anderson’s excess, and it’s hard to argue with that. The whole scene has no reason to exist in the movie, except that it looks good. And I really appreciate that – it’s the kinda crazy diversion that’s entertaining of itself. It’s not as if we’re dying to get back to the same old International Rescue business that we see week-in and week-out – we know how that plays out and we know Anderson will deliver the goods. So, if we can take the time to appreciate it, it’s a fun little bit.

Sweet dreams are made of these...

I also appreciate the movie does take the time to focus on Alan, which is nice. Of course, it might have been nicer if the movie shared the love to the other resident of the Thunderbird 5 space station, John (who Anderson famously disliked), but it’s nice to see a relatively decent amount of character development for a member of the team. Sure, the movie’s moral (“one of the most comforting feelings a man can have in this world of ours is to never be alone”) isn’t exactly Shakespeare, or even Pixar, but it fits the team remarkably well.

There are problems, of course. The standard device of using a real person’s hands for close-ups seems weird, even though it was a staple of the show. Some of the dialogue seems more than a little bit corny (see the moral, quoted above). The character dynamics are little trite and everything seems to follow a little bit too close to formula. On the other hand, these facets might serve to make the movie more endearing, depending on who you ask.

The must have a screw loose...

The movie doesn’t suffer to take itself too seriously (note, for example, the ingenious “disguises” of the puppets in the final scene – I especially like Scott’s goatee), but it does generate a sense of genuine peril for the puppets involved. It’s not as emotionally involving as your standard Disney fare, for example – but that would miss the point. It’s basically the same sort of thing viewers at home would have seen every week.

I’ll accept that nostalgia may taint my review slightly. I don’t think I could be especially harsh to Anderson’s puppets, even if the movie was terrible. As it stands, the film is a fairly effective demonstration of the type of work that made the show so successful. You could argue that the goal of a movie based on television show should perhaps be more, but it is what it is – and quite charmingly, I’d argue.

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