I grew up with the Muppets. “Sesame Street” debuted just a short time before I was born and when I outgrew that, “The Muppet Show” came along. Watching these shows in the 70’s is a big part of why I am a puppeteer today. But in the 60’s there was a different sort of puppetry lighting up the airwaves for kids. Out of Britain there came the process known as “Supermarionation,” a unique combination of marionette style puppets and elaborate models. This was the technique used on the show “Thunderbirds,” a series that proved popular enough to be spun-off into a feature film…1966’s “Thunderbirds Are Go.”
The film begins with the launch of the Zero-X, the first manned mission to Mars. We are treated to a very lengthy sequence in which we see various elements of the rocket being assembled for launch. Once the craft is off the ground, we learn that there is a stowaway…a nasty character fans of the show know as “The Hood.” When his foot gets caught in some of the ships hydraulics, it causes a malfunction which leads to the crash of the ship. Both the ship’s crew and the villain manage to escape before the disaster, however.
After an investigation, it is decided that the 2nd attempt at launching the Zero-X mission will be supervised by the organization known as International Rescue…home of Jeff Tracy and his boys (Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon, and Alan) and their ships, the Thunderbirds. Each is sent to monitor a different aspect of the launch. Meanwhile, the team’s London agent, Lady Penelope, does her part to make sure there is no interference from saboteurs this time. She poses as a reporter and gives the crew members St. Christopher brooches to wear for luck. These are actually homing devices. When launch time rolls around, she is able to notice that one of the crew has been replaced by an impostor…The Hood in disguise. After Scott unmasks him, Lady Penelope chases him down in a dramatic chase over both land and sea.
The launch ends up going off without any further incident, and so the boys decide that they are going to go out and celebrate with Lady Penelope at the Swinging Star nightclub. But, since someone has to stay behind and monitor things, they leave it to the youngest, Alan. He’s already been feeling underappreciated, so this doesn’t exactly help. This leads us to a strange dream sequence where Alan imagines himself on an outer space date with Lady Penelope, complete with a cameo by a puppet version of the group The Shadows.
After several weeks in transit, we pick up with the crew of the Zero-X as they explore the very not-red surface of Mars. While exploring in a rover, the crew encounters a group of strange rock snakes which start shooting fireworks out of their mouths. This causes the mission to hurry their departure back to Earth. However, problems arise as the ship starts to come in for a landing, prompting the Thunderbirds to go back into action to rescue the crew. In the end, it all comes down to Alan making the crucial repairs while dangling under the ship as it zooms toward the ground at top speed.
It does take a little while to get used to watching these particular puppets. They aren’t soft and flexible like The Muppets are. These are stiff, sculpted figures. They can’t show a whole lot of emotion. They’re very well made, but there isn’t a lot of depth to them. But once you settle in, they are kind of fun.
Even more appealing are the intricate designs of the various ships, subs, buildings, and gadgets seen throughout the film. The artistry is absolutely amazing! But, that only goes so far. These elements are things that should be employed to enhance the story. Problem is, there isn’t much of a story. The opening sequence of the film sets the tone pretty well for what is to follow. There are long shots that just drag on as we see every possible moving piece of these beautiful models slowly bend, twist and move. At first I was saying, “wow, that’s cool!” But it didn’t take long for me to be saying, “get on with it, already!”
There really isn’t any overarching story to the whole thing. There are basically four different segments to the film that really aren’t connected that much. None of them is really developed very well. The most disappointing is the sequence that takes place on Mars. I mean, the astronauts are attacked by rock snakes! Rock snakes! That could be cool! But do they fight back? Do they investigate this strange alien life form? No! They run away!
Watching “Thunderbirds Are Go” is kind of like looking at someone’s model train set. There’s a lot of cool things to look at, amazing attention to detail, but if there’s no story for these things to serve…well, it gets boring after a while.