If you're, oh, eleven years old, and you've had it up to here with Spider-Man's current case of existential angst, it's time to blow your weekly allowance on Thunderbirds. This special-effects-crammed action blockbuster aims a bit lower, age-wise, which is to say its hyperactive young hero wears a retainer on his teeth and feels a little bit -- you know, like, funny -- when, in one of his many moments of excitement, he inadvertently grabs the hand of the movie's heroine, who's barely into her teens.
Thunderbirds is not rocket science. It's more like rocket fun, thanks to the real stars of the show -- five computer-generated "rescue vehicles" in five different shapes and painted in five different candy colors that can blow out a raging Russian oil fire in 30 seconds or tame a volcanic eruption in Jakarta before your second handful of popcorn. Every kid will probably have his favorite. I liked the huge, green, shark-shape behemoth with the spoiler on the back (Thunderbird 2), but you might go for the sleek, red-and-silver reconnaissance rocket (Thunderbird 1) with a top speed of 15,000 miles an hour. In any event, this is some ultracool machinery.
The movie's target audience will not remember its origins, a popular British TV series of the 1960s that remains on the air in reruns even in this country. Little matter. The expensive big-screen version, ably directed by Star Trek icon Jonathan Frakes, ups the ante considerably by switching from animation to live action and availing itself of all the new computer technologies that now make virtually anything technically possible in a movie theater. A European EFX shop called Framestore CFC, which also digitized Troy and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, created almost 700 visual-effects shots for Thunderbirds, and it's unlikely that anyone will go home undazzled. When Thunderbird 5, a smallish yellow underwater vehicle, plunges into the River Thames, hooks onto a sunken monorail car, and hoists scores of trapped Londoners to safety, we can't help but marvel. Too bad the Russian navy didn't have one of these when the Kursk hit bottom.
Of course, somebody's got to drive these things. That's where the Tracy family comes in. Well-mannered, well-groomed and blessed with selfless high purpose, they number six, and their world-famous family venture is something called International Rescue. If your city has been struck by an earthquake or your local mountain pass inundated by an avalanche, just call up. The Tracys will take care of everything. Dad (a.k.a. Jeff, a.k.a. Aliens star Bill Paxton), who is billed as "a billionaire ex-astronaut," oversees the space-age heroics of four motherless, reasonably grown-up sons (Philip Winchester, Dominic Colenso, Ben Torgersen and Lex Shrapnel). But it's the fifth and youngest son who gets all of the drama and most of the face time. While his brothers are off saving the planet, poor Alan Tracy (Thirteen's Brady Corbet) is stuck in a New England prep school, too young for derring-do but champing at the bit. "Let me grow up," he pleads to Dad. "Saving lives is a dangerous business," Dad replies. Thus does the preteen audience get the required dose of yearning-to-be-big, along with the usual case of frustration.
But the kid is about to get his chance, under pressure. While spending spring break at home -- home is the family's idyllic South Pacific island, speckled with missile silos and blue-green swimming pools -- the Tracy compound is attacked by a villain straight out of James Bond. He's a twisted megalomaniac called The Hood (the ever-professional acting giant Ben Kingsley), who disables enemies with his withering X-ray gaze and has it in mind to rob the world's biggest banks and blame it on International Rescue. The Hood may not have camera-equipped tentacles like Spider-Man 2's Doc Ock, but he's adversary enough for brave little Alan and his two helpers -- a pint-size techno-nerd called Fermat (Soren Fulton) and (we are inclusive, are we not?) a plucky island girl named Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgins, also from Thirteen).
Let's not spoil the fun by specifying how this intrepid trio rescues the other Tracys and defeats Evil, except to say that they get a little help from an unflappable beauty dressed all in pink, Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles), and her proper British chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook). These two know martial arts, and their jet-powered, six-wheeled pink automobile, FAB1, can fly as well as skim the ocean. For that it wins the nomination as Best Supporting Vehicle.
There's not much more to say. Once the explosions have been quelled, the older Tracys rescued and the sorely-tested teenagers nudged toward adulthood, we have but to consider the prospect of a sequel -- assured as much by the survival of the villain and his henchpeople as by the revived spirits of the heroes. Give the starring rockets a new coat of paint and they, too, will be good as new a year or so from now.