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Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (2011; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

There are, one might suppose, two key metrics by which to measure the success or failure of the motion-capture animation adaptation of the Tintin comics from Hollywood film geek lords Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. We can ask how effective the film is as a general all-audiences popcorn-munching adventure flick and we can ask how accurate and mindful it is as a cinematic translation of Belgian artist Hergé’s detail-rich, vividly-coloured, and good-humoured graphic texts. The pedigree of director Spielberg and producer Jackson (roles which will reverse themselves if this film is successful enough to warrant a sequel, and European box office numbers indicate that will be the case) certainly suggest that the former is the case, and I can say that it certainly is.

The Adventures of Silhouette and White Fang

The Adventures of Tintin is a delightfully fun movie, so overwhelming visually clever and technically masterful that you never know whether to be simply captivated or actively impressed. Its wit is not merely visual but verbal as well, as Hergé’s impish fondness for punning humour alongside his cartoonish visual gags is well-translated to the screen by some of the finest British wits in the screenwriting game. Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat wrote the first draft of the script, with a rewrite done by hipper-than-thou writer/directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and some other comic-book debacle that doesn’t merit mention here) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block).

They craft a brisk and funny tale for Spielberg to animate with his trademarked chameleonic style, based on three of Hergé’s mid-1940s books (one of which, The Secret of the Unicorn, provides the film with its subtitle in foreign territories, where the property is more recognizable). Cub reporter Tintin (voiced and mo-capped by Jamie Bell, who vanishes behind the iconic fresh-faced hero) stumbles upon a greatly sought-after model of a 17th-century warship called the Unicorn at a street market, just beating a distinguished sharp-bearded gentleman named Sakharine (Daniel Craig, also invisible) to it. Sakharine will not be denied, however, first ransacking Tintin’s flat and then abducting the reporter (who we never once see writing a story) when he couldn’t find the secret object he sought, which was hidden inside the model. With the help of his loyal fox terrier Snowy and the hirsute, boorish, and often drunken Captain Haddock (mo-cap vet Andy Serkis), Tintin chases Sakharine across seas and romantic locales, gradually solving a centuries-old mystery in the process.

A globetrotting adventure narrative of this sort is fine fodder for the sort of action set-pieces that both Spielberg and Jackson are known for, and they provide at least a couple of doozies. Haddock’s reminisence of a dizzying sea battle between his ancestor and that of Sakharine is the most grand of these, featuring both the Unicorn and the pirate ship attacking it burning and heaving in a stormy sea, their mainmasts hooking up to each other and transforming into an immense pendulum as the crews swordfight to the death. It’s the sort of massive-scaled, eyes-wide-open imagery that Gore Verbinski tried and failed to achieve in his Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and it’s stunning stuff done beautifully here. The real highlight, however, is an elaborately-staged and enormously clever one-shot chase sequence through a terraced Moroccan hill city featuring a rushing flood, a motorcycle with sidecar, a tank dragging a hotel lobby, and a determined falcon. Worth the price of admission alone (maybe even the inflated 3D price, although I saw the regular old 2D print), these two scenes are among the most purely, joyfully cinematic things that Spielberg has ever committed to celluloid, and justify the expense and effort of the film all on their own.

Our coordinates are 42 degrees North… by Northwest

It’s a good thing they do, however, because there are several niggling issues coming along with them. The complex spectacle of these scenes is rather un-Hergé, to be honest, even if his simmering wit is imparted well enough in their surfeit of sight gags. The climactic industrial crane duel between Haddock and Sakharine is a few steps too far down this road, a crunching, fairly ugly mirror image of the swordfight of their antecedents earlier on. The titular protagonist’s role is minimal in this sequence as well, as the manlier alpha male Haddock seizes the Hollywood action-star mantle for the big showdown.

Furthermore, the technical choice to use the still-clunky motion-capture animation style pioneered by Robert Zemeckis’ zombie-people cartoons like The Polar Express and Beowulf seems an odd one to portray the vivid heightened graphic reality of the Belgian comic master. Most critics of this method cite the dead look in the eyes of the onscreen characters, but advances in the technology have largely overcome that problem (no one could say that the eyes on Jackson’s and Serkis’ innovations in the method, Gollum and King Kong, were lifeless in the least). They have not overcome the slightly jerky, vaguely robotic movement of characters’ bodies nor their fleshy baby-fat excessiveness, and even in the mostly visually-exquisite Tintin these hitches present themselves with regularity. The bodies that are treated unlike real ones work the best: witness the hilarious scene in a ship’s quarters, with sleeping crew members flopping back and forth in (and out of) their bunks with the rhythm of the waves.

The characters themselves, especially Tintin and the villainous Sakharine, also don’t animate the plot so much as occupy positions in it. A few amusing, slapsticky Thompson and Thompson moments aside (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost do the voicing honours), Serkis’ burly, jabbering Haddock is the only human who makes much of an impression all on his own. I do make the “human” distinction because Snowy is consistently rather great, snatching away much of the movie and proving that W.C. Fields’ famous truism about children and animals at least partly applies even in the age of computer-generated 3D animation.

There’s also a certain unwillingness on the part of the script to grapple with the problematic side of Hergé’s Tintin world, in particular the knee-jerk social conservatism and imperialistic assumptions of his early work (we shan’t be seeing Tintin in the Congo on silver screens in the near future, I would wager). The choice of the Unicorn/Red Rackham arc for the movie’s plot was a deliberately apolitical one, focusing on the distinctly non-ideological exploration tales that Hergé produced to avoid blowback from the Nazi occupiers of Belgium during WWII. There’s also a sometimes awkward attempt to have Haddock’s alcoholism both ways, to employ it as an uncomplicated comic device as Hergé did as well as an affliction and a marker of the weakness and anxiety that Haddock must overcome in order to fulfill his family legacy.

The Adventures of Tintin has only a small role in the legacy of the comic property’s creator, for its own part. The well-intentioned and careful fondness for Hergé’s work that is displayed by the creative team is certainly hard to miss. The opening credits are a slick, swinging tribute to the elegant geometry of the comics, and the master himself gets a heavily-nodded-at cameo immediately after them, as a street caricutarist who draws the mo-capped Tintin in his comic-book appearance.

But the rest of the film leaps off of Hergé’s creation into a swashbuckling Hollywood adventure of the Saturday morning serial sort that Spielberg himself once restored to the popular discourse; a kind of Tintindiana Jones, as a friend quipped in the theatre beforehand. It will be interesting to see where, if anywhere, the series goes from here, with the most neutral and inoffensive stories in the Tintin canon now spent (the conclusion of the Red Rackham’s Treasure narrative is the ending sequel-promise, not to play spoiler). Spielberg and Jackson have managed to make a very fun Tintin, but are they able (or willing) to incorporate Hergé’s subtle social commentary into their adventures tales as well? Possibly next time, I suppose.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 1, 2013 at 9:08 am
  2. August 13, 2013 at 8:19 am

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