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.
Although the film's title suggests there might be some deeply relevant British national allegory in the film post-colonialist comedy fans shouldn't get their hopes up. The plot of Johnny English such as it is goes something like this: The title character a bumbling junior-level spy (Rowan Atkinson) is suddenly thrust into active duty when every other agent in the British Secret Service is blown to smithereens during a bombing at a fellow agent's funeral. When the Crown Jewels are stolen it's up to English to discover the culprit and in the process he unearths a plot to replace the Queen of England with a French entrepreneur who has some pretty nasty real estate development plans for Merry Olde Blighty. It's a sorry excuse for a story sure but such paltry fare as plot character development and dialogue don't matter much when you connect the bits with U.K. fave Atkinson hamming it up in his trademark blundering way. And he really is funny in this movie--maybe not pee-your-pants funny but certainly hoot-out-loud funny. As with any spy spoof some of the shtick works and some doesn't but on the whole Atkinson and Co. do a good job in spite of the contrived script and pithy lines writers Neal Purvis Robert Wade and William Davies have pieced together for them.
If Cervantes' Don Quixote were a modern-day spy this would be his story. Atkinson tilts at Johnny English's windmills with the vigor and extravagance fans of the comedian's trademarked physical comedy have come to expect. Whether he's crashing a funeral pantomiming to ABBA in front of his bathroom mirror invading a hospital with guns blazing or getting his tie caught in a sushi bar conveyor belt Atkinson gives this movie's hackneyed scenes personality they probably wouldn't have had in any other actor's hands. Comedian and fellow Brit Ben Miller takes his first strokes across the pond as English's sidekick Bough playing Sancho Panza to Atkinson's Quixote to fairly good effect. The real "straight man" in this farce however is Natalie Imbruglia as love interest Lorna Campbell. The girl can't act her way out of a paper bag but when you look the way she does in leather pants and stilettos talent is beside the point. John Malkovich is underutilized as the villain Pascal Sauvage whose anti-English (that's the nation not the spy) sentiments have driven him to lay claim to the throne of England which he plans to use for nefarious purposes.
Based as it is on a character Atkinson created for a TV commercial for a major British credit card it's not surprising that the characters in Johnny English are far more entertaining when they're improvising 60-second physical comedy scenes than when they're attempting to further the so-called plot. What is surprising is that such pedigreed moviemakers as director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) production company Working Title Films (producers of Elizabeth Fargo and Billy Elliot) and producer Mark Huffam (The Hours) are attached to such a silly film. Then again everybody needs to let loose sometime; maybe this is their idea of a vacation.
Poor poor Harry Potter. Orphaned as an infant he's been raised by his beastly aunt and uncle who keep him locked in the room under the stairs and make him serve breakfast. But 11-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has always known he was different a fact confirmed in a big way when he's invited to enroll at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Despite his horrid family's protests Harry's whisked off by a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) to the magic school where it seems he's something of a celebrity. Turns out his parents were killed by a wicked "fallen wizard " who despite his mighty powers was somehow unable to kill the baby Harry. It will eventually fall to Harry to stop the malevolent sorcerer who still roams the countryside plotting to get hold of a magic stone secreted inside Hogwarts that will give him absolute power. Meanwhile Harry makes some new friends in bossy Hermione (Emma Watson) and affable Ron (Rupert Grint) becomes a star player of Quidditch (like hockey on broomsticks) and defeats a troll rampaging through the girls' bathroom.
Unfortunately Radcliffe brings nothing spectacular to a role that requires it. You don't like him or dislike him; he's a bland Harry who simply reacts (without the sheer amazement you expect from an 11-year-old boy) to the wild and crazy situations he's suddenly immersed in. By contrast Watson carries off her officious Hermione with aplomb and personality as does Grint (who looks startlingly like a young Hayley Mills) as Harry's bumbling loyal buddy. The rest of the enormous cast throw themselves into their we've-seen-these-characters-before roles with gusto: Richard Harris as wise old headmaster Dumbledore Maggie Smith as a prim and proper schoolteacher Tom Felton as Harry's smarmy arrogant rival Draco. Best in show goes to Coltrane as the amiable giant who gets the most screen time of all the adults as he helps Harry along on his journey of discovery. A pageboy'd goth Alan Rickman as sly Professor Snape is good too but underused.
Chris Columbus certainly had his work cut out--remain true to the fanatically revered book or attempt to interpret its magic? As one might expect from the director of Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom he took the high road and gives us the book almost word for word (you practically expect Rowling herself to pop on-screen to narrate). It makes for a safely predictable movie but lacks the enchantment of discovery. John Williams' slick grandiose and too-loud score doesn't help either. As it turns out the best special effects are in the not-so-obvious details--pumpkins and candles suspended in the dining hall moving pictures on the walls--rather than the cheesy Cerberus guarding the stone and ghosts like Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese's cameo) which move about like Disneyland holograms. Even the overlong Quidditch game looks fake-y; the players zoom through a blue sky that might as well be the blue screen. Lots of unanswered questions will remain after you leave the theater: why is Snape such a jerk and how come Harry didn't once use the precious wand he's given except to stab the troll in the nose?