Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg, Euro-style

'Tintin' hits American shores in dynamic, stylish fashion

The Adventures of Tintin
Paramount Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series created by Hergé
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook and Daniel Mays
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
(out of four)

Count me among the many Americans who had never heard of Tintin before it was announced as a cinematic partnership between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. If any European comrades of mine had ever mentioned it to me, I would have responded, "What is a tintin?" They would have pointed at me and laughed.

So my experience with the plucky redheaded detective is limited to this movie and this movie only, but with this as my only frame of reference, I'm sold. And if not for my continuing reservations about motion-capture, I may have been sold even more enthusiastically.

It's been written ad nauseam that, with The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg has returned to his Indiana Jones roots. It is, after all, a wise-cracking, globetrotting mystery steeped in codes, puzzles and mysticism. And hey, a motorcycle sidecar features prominently in one of the film's setpieces, instantly calling to mind The Last Crusade.

But there's a different sensibility at work here than in the Indy series - a comedic bent I can only assume comes directly from the comics. Consider the absurd truth we discover about the nefarious pickpocket - and the even more absurd reaction (or non-reaction) of Thomson and Thompson (voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), the inept detectives who pop up throughout the story.

In fact, the comedy was my favorite thing about the film - and it's a nice side to see from Spielberg, especially in the same year he gave us the overwrought self-parody of War Horse. I suppose the great sense of wit should come as no surprise when you consider the screenwriting team's collective body of work - none other than Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Sherlock), Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block).

It's an essential ingredient in a charming stylistic cocktail - the heavy European flavor derived from Hergé mixed with the visual traditions of film noir, brought to life by photorealistic digital animation and motion-capture. Ultimately, it works. Not perfectly, but it works. And any excuse for a vintage Spielberg action setpiece or two is a good one. (Well, except for maybe Indiana Jones 5, but you get my point.)

The plot revolves around three scrolls hidden in three identical model ships, which we come to find out are somehow connected to buried treasure, and buried family secrets of the nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and the charming but hopelessly inebriated Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). This is more than Tintin (Jamie Bell) bargained for, but once he realizes the grand mystery he's stumbled upon, well, he just can't help himself. He's all in.

(This is where I suspect a reviewer more familiar with the character might say something like, "Oh, that Tintin, there he goes again; always getting himself into a pickle, that one. Always finding himself in a bit of danger. Oh, Tintin...") (The hypothetical people I make up always talk like your cute, elderly next-door neighbors. Don't ask me why.)

Much has been made of the fact that Tintin is Spielberg's first foray into animation, motion-capture, digital photography and 3D. But the movie also gave him the opportunity to do some of what he does best. The adventure setpieces are vintage Spielberg, from the smoothness and clarity of their choreography to their little embedded ironies. There's an ecstatic breathlessness to it all.

Now, a few words about mo-cap. I've always been dubious of it - not because it didn't work at all, but because it's often been badly misapplied. It's never worked especially well for human characters - the body movement is awkward, the eyes are dead, and all the characters intended to be near-realistic approximations of people dip right into the Uncanny Valley. Tintin is the best example yet for humans - but that's because the characters are intended to look somewhat cartoonish. The way most of them are designed, they aren't trying to pass for physical beings - here, mo-cap is a tool to blend the physicality of a performance with the artistry and freedom of digital animation. As it should be.

This is certainly far better than anything Robert Zemeckis has done with the format, despite him being its most vocal champion since first using it on The Polar Express (whose visuals would barely pass muster in a video-game trailer these days).

(Obligatory aside: Naturally, no motion-capture film would be complete without the great Andy Serkis, who embodies the role of Captain Haddock completely. Reservations notwithstanding, Serkis is doing groundbreaking work that no other actor is doing - someday he'll be recognized with an honorary Oscar or something. Many years too late.)

Perhaps the best that could be said of this movie, and the characters who inhabit it, is that further entries in the series would be more than welcome. Tintin, Haddock and especially Thompson & Thomson have plenty of life left in them. Surely one adventure isn't enough.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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