I'm happy that Jonathan Frakes has found his niche in Hollywood.

Now that he's retired from exploring the galaxy, the former first officer of the Enterprise on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" spends his days behind the camera, directing sci-fi TV shows like "Roswell" and family-friendly teen adventure movies like 2002's "Clockstoppers" and this summer's "Thunderbirds."

So what if that sort of movie's never going to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar? Somebody's got to direct them.

At least Frakes' movies show that he's having fun - and doing his best to let the audience have a good time as well. "Thunderbirds" sprang from a 1960s British TV series starring puppets as a billionaire astronaut and his five sons, who operated a secret high-tech emergency response service with fantastical machines that navigated through space, air, water and earth.

The Tracy brothers stand ready for their next international rescue. Photo by Universal Pictures.In this big-screen version, live actors have stepped in to fill the shoes of dad Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) and sons, four of whom get nothing more than a couple of throwaway lines and a personal hairstylist. The story revolves around the youngest Tracy, played with pubescent enthusiasm by Brady Corbet, who's still deemed too young to take part in the family's daring rescue operations.

In kid-centric movies, if the main character's younger than 18, it's an unwritten rule that he can't do it alone. When the bad guy appears and incapacitates the adults, Corbet teams up with brainy pipsqueak Fermat (Soren Fulton) and island cutie Tin Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), who of course one-ups the boys when it comes to anything requiring bravery or physical exertion.

In what could have been a startling dose of deja vu, Ben Kingsley stars as the maniacal evildoer in "Thunderbirds" - which could conceivably be playing in the theater next door to "Suspect Zero," starring Kingsley as - what else - a maniacal evildoer. But from his first frame onscreen, Kingsley lets audiences know that this role is pure camp. Garbed in a red silk kimono and brandishing a twinkle in his eye, the diminutive actor dominates every scene - and leaves the slapstick to his henchmen, Deobia Oparei and Rose Keegan.

"Thunderbirds" makes screen time for the other characters from the TV series, the Tracys' resident scientist Brains (played with a hilarious speech impediment by Anthony Edwards) and their secret agent pal, Lady Penelope and her multitalented chauffeur, Parker (Sophia Miles and Ron Cook). But in spite of what sounds like a lengthy cast list, director Frakes ramps up the styling and the production design so that each character gets a color scheme and a signature gimmick all his own (except for the older Tracy brothers, who all look like surfers in flight suits). Lady Penelope's wardrobe, for example, rivals Jackie O's for Chanel-inspired suits and Elle Woods' for being unfailingly pink.

The over-the-top design scheme extends to the Thunderbirds' private island headquarters and their colossal vehicles, too. Colors are packed with punch, lines are sleek and retro.

Admittedly, "Thunderbirds" is not much more than a pleasant afternoon diversion, a nice way to take the family out for a little fun. But it isn't boring, and it isn't raunchy - so my hat's off to Jonathan Frakes and crew. Movies like this don't break box office records, but some of us are glad they're out there.


Rated PG for intense action sequences and language

Starring: Brady Corbet, Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Soren Hulton, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Sophie Miles

Directed by: Jonathan Frakes

Length: One hour 27 minutes

Now playing at: Cannes Cinema in Seaside

Short take: In this live-action version of the 1960s British TV puppet show, teenager Brady Corbet stars as the youngest member of a family of heroes. Ben Kingsley is obviously having a blast as the villain in this over-the-top, campy adventure that's just plain fun.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: What similarities do Jonathan Frakes and Leonard Nimoy share?

Answer: Frakes and Nimoy have each directed two "Star Trek" movies, and both played the Enterprise's first officer on their respective "Star Trek" series.


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