Friday, January 06, 2012

In Theaters: The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin poster and IMPAwards link

Now that we're mostly out of the holiday season (by the Gregorian calendar at least), I finally have time to actually see some of the major holiday releases. The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's first animated film (which seems wrong somehow), has actually been out for a while in most parts of the world. When I was a child I read a lot of Tintin's adventures, and even have some memory of the animated series, so it's gratifying to see the world's favorite boy reporter who isn't Jimmy Olsen get his due on the big screen. Spielberg does right by our hero; his Tintin may be a little more action-heavy than the books were, but it's still a light comic adventure with plenty of mystery, wry humor, and an engagingly crazy story adapted straight from Hergé's books.

It all starts when Tintin (played in voice and motion capture by Jamie Bell) buys a model ship from a street merchant. The model is of the Unicorn, a mighty ship commanded by the late Sir Francis Haddock, sunk beneath the waves hundreds of years ago and seemingly bringing a curse upon the Haddock family line. The model is stolen, but Tintin recovers what the thieves were after- a scroll inside forming part of a clue to a mysterious treasure. He finds this out just in time to be kidnapped by the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig) (and yes, his name is pronounced like the sweetener), who has another one of the scrolls and is after a third held somewhere in Morocco. Aboard the boat Sakharine has commandeered, Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), last of the Haddock line and an unreliable souse. They, and Tintin's ever vigilant dog Snowy, are driven to beat the evil Sakharine to the treasure he seeks, and in so doing redeem the Haddock family name.

Hergé's will actually forbids the creation of any new Tintin stories, so screenwriters Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim), and Joe Cornish (of Attack the Block) adapted the story mostly from the classic tale "The Secret of the Unicorn", throwing in elements and references to other Tintin stories along the way (eagle-eyed fans will catch a lot of treats.) They've managed to make the story suitably epic for the big screen without ever getting too serious- there's some thematic stuff about living up to your potential but it's generally pretty lightweight. It also manages to make a surprising amount of sense, which is really difficult when you're dealing with ancient puzzles, sinister conspiracies, and elaborate heists.

Spielberg, of course, is in his element with this material, and animation doesn't seem to have tripped him up any. There are some remarkable action and chase setpieces here, notably one sequence that is mostly taken up by a single unbroken shot that takes us through the chase. Spielberg has an almost instinctive grasp of the grammar of movies, and knows how to sell each little detail of a scene, from a scroll rolling under a table to a tank plowing through the streets of a Moroccan city. The 3-D adds to the sense of kinetic fun without being overbearing- it probably works about as well in 2-D, but if the three-dimensional version is still playing in your area that's the one to go to.

A lot of people have gone on at length about the evils of motion capture animation and the dead-eyed automatons it supposedly produces, so I guess I have to talk a little about that. Well, for the most part it works. There are a few medium and long shots where some of the characters look a bit like live actors in rubber masks, but up close they're much more convincing, and just caricatured enough that live action or simpler animation wouldn't have done them justice. (Zakharine looking like a clone of Svengali is a little problematic but I suppose the director of Schindler's List can get away with it.) The renditions of the classic Tintin characters are spot-on; though Tintin himself is a bit of a blank slate, the script has some self-aware fun with his born adventurer's persona, and Serkis as Haddock is just wonderful, as are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as crack detectives Thompson and Thomson, respectively.

The Adventures of Tintin loses some energy near the end, gently coasting to a stop more than anything, but the effect is a pleasant one. This isn't an intense thriller, it's an adventure, a lark, with just enough weight for us to care how it turns out and enough sense to leave us wanting a little more. Rumor has it we're going to get this story's follow-up, directed by Peter Jackson (the American box office has been weak, but it's already made more than enough in the rest of the world), and I hope that does indeed come about, because there are still a few more bits of Hergé's world I'd like to see brought to life. Even if the characters do look a little weird.

Based on the books by Hergé
Written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Grade: A-

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