The world of big budget action movies seemed pretty damn bleak in the late 90s. The world of tent pole blockbuster cinema seemed dominated by a bunch of music video bred brats like Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, and Roland Emmerich who were making soulless effects vehicles aimed at over-caffinated teenagers. Sure, the OGs like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and (for better or worse) George Lucas were still making movies, but it was beginning to feel like that wave of near-perfect effects blockbusters would soon be gone for good. Fortunately a new “chosen one” emerged out of nowhere and his name was Peter Jackson. The second the world saw the first installment of The Lord of the Rings it became clear that the heir apparent of Steven Spielberg was in our midst. A year or two after Jackson’s epic was concluded it was announced that the old master (Spielberg) and the young buck (Jackson) would be combine their talents and make a huge project that would be the Miami Heat of cinema, they were going to make an adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin… wait a minute, what the hell is a “Tintin.”
Tintin is a character used by a Belgian writer who went by the Pen-name Hergé in a series of comic books in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He’s a journalist who went on a variety of pulpy adventures across the world along with a supporting cast that included his dog Snowy, a sea Capitan named Archibald Haddock, and a pair of bumbling Interpol agents named Thomson and… Thompson. The comics never really caught on in the United States but they were massively popular in Europe, where the character is as instantly recognizable as Superman, Popeye, or Archie. So, while this seemed like an odd franchise to put a bunch of hype behind stateside, it was a solid investment from the perspective of worldwide box office and that already seems to have paid off to the tune of $268 million in overseas box office. As it opens here it seems to have kept a surprisingly low profile given its pedigree. It’s almost like they’ve decided to declare the overseas success as a win and quit while they’re ahead rather than waste a bunch of money advertising the movie to audiences that don’t care about the character. Seeing the movie I kind of see what led them to this conclusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s a movie that every American viewer should necessarily skip just because they aren’t already in love with the source material.
As the film begins Tintin (Jamie Bell) is already a seasoned adventurer in spite of his youngish age. His latest adventure begins when he buys a model ship from a flea market and is quickly warned by a man in a suit (Joe Starr) that this acquisition will put him in great danger. Moments later a man named Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) offers him a great deal of money for the model, but Tintin decides to hold onto the item and investigate what it is about the ship that has these people so interested. Tintin does some research into the model and comes to realize that it was made by a legendary sea captain named Sir Francis Haddock and that the model may be one of many. He also learns that the model has a strange poem hidden on a small piece of parchment which he decides to keep on his person. He arrives home to find his model stolen, and shortly thereafter he finds the man who tried to warn him earlier dead at his doorstep and his model stolen. That isn’t the end of the ordeal either because the people who are after the model’s secrets soon kidnap Tintin in order to find the poem parchment and this marks the beginning of a an adventure that will introduce Tintin to a descendant of Francis Haddock named Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis) and will lead him into a globetrotting race to find the original haddock’s lost treasure.
I feel like part of why this franchise hasn’t really caught on in America is that Tintin himself kind of looks like a dork. If I were to improve on the character design I’d start by making him a bit older and giving him a more world weary look on his face. Then I’d get rid of his lame costume, especially the knee-high socks, and give him some cooler attire. Possibly a leather jacket, those are always cool, right? Then I’d do something about that lame ginger-cowlick hair-doo, or better yet maybe we could just have him wear a hat, possible a fedora. I like that he carries a gun, but maybe we could up the ante by also giving him a whip he could use in his adventuring. See where I’m going with this. It’s pretty clear that Spielberg has already covered a lot this territory through the Indiana Jones series. More specifically, with Indiana Jones he was able to update Tintin and make him a cooler adventurer for a new era.
The thing is, I don’t think Spielberg is remotely interested in making Tintin “cool,” in fact he seems to have gone the opposite direction and embraced everything about the character that is old fashioned and in some ways corny. The whole film has a strange sort of sense of humor filled with strange sense of humor that’s filled with slapstick and general silliness; it’s downright cartoony at times. The conventional wisdom, when faced with lines like “great snakes!” or “Billions of blistering barnacles!” would be to omit them or at least downplay them, but Spielberg steers right into them unapologetically. Similarly Spielberg has no problem including a pair of outrageously stupid plainclothes cops named Thompson and Thompson into the film and having them engage in antics that border into Three Stooges territory. I resisted a lot of this stuff at first but somewhere around the midway point I began to almost respect Spielberg’s dedication to making the film into a strange sort of farce. Had he tried to tone down the comedy or attempted to modernize the material I suspect the moments where the comedy shone through would have seemed jarring, but the way he made the film they seem like the norm.
These cartoonish elements are also likely the reason that Spielberg decided to use animation as his medium for the first time in his career. This is the latest example of the controversial performance capture method of animation, which uses live actors as the basis for each character’s motions. This process has probably been most notably used by Robert Zemeckis to make films like Beowulf and The Polar Express. Many don’t like this technique because the characters, who look very real but still not quite human, and that can seem a little creepy to some. I see where these people are coming from, but I’ve never really shared their discomfort. I’ve always just seen performance capture as a unique style unto itself with pros and cons. For one thing I think performance capture gives the characters a certain size and weight that makes their movements a lot more relatable.
The use of the technique here is particularly interesting because a lot of the characters don’t look remotely similar to the actors they’re based on. For example, the credits tell me that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Thompson and Thompson respectively, but you’d never guess that by showing someone a picture of the characters as they appear in the film. The only character who really looks much like the actor who plays him is Tintin himself and he is not coincidentally the most “uncanny” aspect of the movie. Another technical “gimmick” the movie uses is 3D, in fact this is the second 3D movie I’ve seen this year, and that’s a %100 increase over the number of 3D films I saw in 2010. I doubt that the 3D in this movie will either impress or annoy anyone, it works just fine but there’s not a lot of innovation to it.
The use of animation is something of a double edged sword when it comes to the staging of action scenes in that it makes some really big spectacles possible, but it also sort of lessens their impact. The film has a lot of set-pieces including a scene where a biplane tries to navigate a thunderstorm, a large scale sword fight, a long and involved chase scene through a North African port city, and a scene where large cranes crash into one another. There is no way that these scenes could have been economically constructed in a live action film, but it’s hard to really favorably compare them to what gets done in actual live action films because of this. The film’s comedic tone also lessens the impact of these scenes because there’s no real sense of danger at any point in the film. Tintin does carry a gun, but he never really shoots anybody with it, and while the villains are theoretically out to kill Tintin the viewer never for a minute thinks they will actually succeed. The whole film just seems a little to innocent to really be taken seriously as an action film and it suffers because of it.
At the end of the day The Adventures of Tintin is a hard movie to fault because it seems like it’s exactly the movie that Spielberg intended it to be. The comedy in the film doesn’t really jive with my taste, but I suspect that this is exactly the way that Hergé write these stories and that the people like Spielberg and Jackson who grew up on this stuff will be charmed to no end by these antics. It’s an unpretentious romp that is in its own way unique from all the other action films being made today and in its uncompromising vision it manages to do things that would generate groans from any other film. I suspect that if I were ten or eleven I would have loved this movie, and even at my current age I did have a lot fun with it.
*** out of Four