Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin Movie Review: Tintin, We Welcome You to America

The opening credits of Steven Spielberg’s motion capture animation The Adventures of Tintin is probably the most exciting opening credits since the same director’s Catch Me If You Can. The title designs are similar, both based on the classic Hollywood work of Saul Bass with spritely jazz compositions by the great film composer John Williams. His Tintin opening theme highlights such instruments as are not often heard in orchestras, but which lend themselves credibly to the time period (1930s) and setting (Europe) of the “Tintin” stories. Amid the fluttering flutes, dancing clarinets and staccato brass we hear accordion, harpsichord and bells all featured prominently. It’s a sequence that offers the promise of excitement and adventure to come. It’s been a long time since I had that feeling in the first moments of a movie. Unfortunately, what followed turned out to be a slight letdown.

The “Tintin” adventure stories by Belgian artist Hergé are virtually unknown to American audiences but have been beloved for generations in Europe. Tintin is something of a conundrum. He has the physical features of a teenage boy, but he lives alone and has a gun for protection. He’s a journalist with clippings of the big stories he’s broken hanging on his apartment walls, but we never see him writing or going to the office. His existence is solely about adventure and traveling to distant lands. The original comic books (which might be referred to as graphic novels by today’s standards given the copious amounts of text on any page) took him to far-flung places all over the globe.

In Spielberg’s version (his first animated film), adapted by Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright from three of Hergé’s books, Tintin stumbles upon a model ship that is highly desired by several people willing to pay any price for it. It turns out to contain a secret that may lead Tintin to a big story and Captain Haddock (a regular supporting character in the books making Tintin’s acquaintance for the first time in the movie) to some heirloom treasure. No time is wasted in launching Tintin into action and from there it’s a nearly breathless series of action set pieces through the end including a daring escape from a steamship, a place crash landing in the Sahara and a high-speed high-wire chase through a Moroccan port city.

Prior to Tintin’s having other human characters to share his thoughts with, the movie suffers from too much monologue delivered to his dog, Snowy. I imagine this works much better on the page where it functions similar to reading what a character is thinking, but in the movie it feels forced and expository without a creative solution. Generally speaking, this is a screenplay designed mainly to service an adventure plot. It’s primarily comprised of exposition with little in the way of deep character development. But then this is designed for kids. Or is it? It contains a couple of harrowing moments of danger involving gunplay, near drowning, and a ship full of sailors sinking, thus sending hundreds of men to their watery deaths. The story also has one of the most gaping holes I can recall in a big studio movie. SPOILER WARNING: The main antagonist, a character named Sakharine is meant to be the descendant of the pirate Red Rackham, who cursed the Haddock line of descendants just before dying. So how does Sakharine know that he’s supposed to have some kind of Hatfield and McCoy rivalry with Haddock? END SPOILERS

Watching the film I kept thinking of Indiana Jones. I suppose that’s inevitable given the Spielberg-directed action and the John Williams scoring – one of his best, but aren’t they all? – which recalls at varying times Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.  More than that, however, Tintin has a similar globe-trotting adventure series feel to it. I learned later that Spielberg first learned of the series when a review of Raiders likened it to “Tintin.” The difference here is that with CGI motion capture, Spielberg is able to pull off more incredible feats of action and adventure than can be accomplished with real humans (although that didn’t quite stop him from executing absurd action sequences in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

As we know from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Gollum character portrayed by Andy Serkis, motion capture technology has come a long way since Robert Zemeckis made the first feature film using the technique in The Polar Express. Peter Jackson is a producer on Tintin, helping bring the technology to fruition and uncanny lifelike levels of expression. Having real actors behind the characters – Jamie Bell as Tintin, Daniel Craig as Sakharine and Serkis (now making a full time career as motion capture specialist actor) as Haddock – provides the CGI animation with fluidity still unachievable even by Pixar, the gold standard of computer animation. The movie looks great to my eyes. My guess is that those familiar with the original comics will be put off by the too realistic-looking animation which bears virtually no resemblance to Hergé’s clean and simple drawings, but for American audiences it’s a feast for the eyes. I saw the film in 3D and I think I’ve decided I’m done with 3D. Spielberg uses it sparingly to the point that it’s often unnoticeable, which begs the question, “Why use it at all?” My feeling about 3D has been that it’s best employed in animated films, but my suggestion is to pay less money to see The Adventures of Tintin in a traditional cinema and you’re likely to get the same level of enjoyment out of it.

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