The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
107 min., rated PG.
Every now and again, director Steven Spielberg will release two movies the same year. This holiday season, it was "War Horse," a shamelessly sentimental but grandly mounted tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. A week before that was Spielberg's old-fashioned adventure yarn and undertaking of the cutting-edge technology of motion-capture CG animation (in 3D) in "The Adventures of Tintin." His own "Raiders of the Lost Ark" evoked the nostalgia of Saturday matinee serials, and after its release in 1981, the Tintin comic strips of the Belgan writer/artist Hergé were actually compared to Spielberg's high-adventure staple. So it only makes sense that his first foray into animation is Indiana Jones-ish and has the jackrabbit-pacing of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" — no peaks and valleys, just nonstop, high-flying adventure, minus the sacrificial heart-pullings. With one of the most reliable moviemakers at the helm, "The Adventure of Tintin" delivers some of the most rousing, cinematic CG action.
Our boy hero is, in fact, named Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell), a valiant newspaper reporter who's bailed out by his loyal fox terrier Snowy when he gets in a jam. After he purchases a model maritime ship called "The Unicorn" at a street market, Tintin is quickly bombarded by a few suspicious buyers, itching to give him anything for it, but the boy won't give it up. One warns him that he'll "walk into a whole mess of danger." Once Tintin (well, actually it's Snowy) discovers a scroll in the mast of the ship model, it leads to the Hardy Boy being kidnapped aboard the SS Karaboudjan, escaping on a lifeboard, hijacking a plane and crashlanding in a Moroccan desert, and getting caught in a bunch of other chases. Tintin also gets a sidekick in the form of gruff, whiskey-breathing seafarer Captain Haddock (spry mo-cap king Andy Serkis, adding a touch of "Jaw's" Captain Quint), searching for the lost treasure of one of Haddock's swashbuckling ancestors. With one clue in their possession, Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock race to find the remaining pieces of the puzzle, while the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is in pursuit. Also showing up throughout are two bumbling inspectors (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), both named Thompson, with identical mustaches, top hats, and canes. They investigate a pickpocket (Toby Jones), who turns out to be a mere red herring.
The plot specifics can be hard to follow, but in the main, it's a long chase here and fro in search of treasure. Adapting the script from three of the original comics, screenwriters Steven Moffat (BBC's "Doctor Who"), Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead"), and Joe Cornish ("Attack the Block") fuel the chase with witty, playful banter without resorting to kid-movie earmarks (i.e. bathroom humor). And most live-action actioners can't even keep a consistent pace, but "The Adventures of Tintin" keeps a lively momentum going and never lets up for much downtime.
Instead of copying Hergé's pioneered ligne claire (or "clear line") drawing style, Spielberg and producing partner Peter Jackson implement motion-capture CG animation. After 2004's "The Polar Express," 2007's "Beowulf," and 2009's "A Christmas Carol" (the earliest one being a wondrous, magical picture), the animation technique has been accused for rendering human avatars as rubbery, hollow-eyed puppets. Here, the technology has come a long way, baby, looking more photorealistic. The animated counterparts, modeled after their actors, aren't as distractingly vacant. Some are better off looking as cartoons (with large noses and oddly proportioned frames), while others still reside in "Uncanny Valley" (a computer-animation term coined to describe digitally animated characters looking somewhere between lifelike and freakishly robotic). That begs the question, why not just shoot this story in the live-action form?
To the contrary, freed from all technical restrictions, Spielberg has a field day with the animation. His camera fluidly swoops out of windows, under moving cars, through ship windows and up onto the deck. We don't bat an eye or feel distracted by how the showman pulled the rabbit out of his hat because we know none of it could be done without the miracle of computers. As a spectacle, it's very cinematic, and all of the action is exciting and spectacularly constructed with a clean eye for movement. One busy sequence—a chase through a Moroccan seaside village—is presented in one long take, and it's so exhilarating and rhythmically skillful in its staging. The music score, recognizably composed by John Williams, rouses the action even more. Right off the top, the jazzy, noir-themed silhouetted overture instantly calls to mind the title sequence of 2002's "Catch Me if You Can," also scored by Williams.
The film's biggest weakness is a lack of emotion attached to the proceedings. It's ironic because many of Spielberg's projects load up on the sentiment (see the "other" Spielberg offering out this month), but this one does quite the opposite. Whether it be the fault of the screenplay or that Spielberg was too engulfed in the look of the film versus his storytelling, an emotional hollowness keeps "The Adventures of Tintin" from being great. Perhaps if we knew more about Tintin, it might make his journey far more engaging on our insides rather than just our eyes. He's obviously old enough to have his own apartment with a nice old landlady, work as a journalist, and carry a firearm, but who is he? Even for an entry-level story into Tintin's adventures, he's virtually a Young Indy. The intrepid lad even uses the catchphrase "Great Snakes!" when Dr. Jones would've said "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"
For those with pre-existing knowledge or affection for the European source material, "The Adventures of Tintin" might mean more. To the rest of us, and on its own merits as a high-adventure diversion, the film can be fun and breathtaking, but after it's all over, not much sticks in your mind. Spielberg is clearly giddy over his use of the revolutionary medium, and for the time his baby plays out on the big screen, it's still fun going along for the ride.
Grade: B +
Grade: B +
Grade: B +