As the story goes, Steven Spielberg discovered a love for Tintin, the Belgian comic book character, after he released Raiders of the Lost Ark and fans drew connections between the high adventure feel of the first Indiana Jones movie and Tintin’s comic book series, which follows a young reporter on unlikely adventures. It’s taken thirty years, but now Spielberg brings an animated version of Tintin’s adventures to the screen in a film that feels very similar in mood and tone to the film that started it all, Raiders of the Lost Ark. If nothing else, The Adventurs of Tintin shows that Spielberg can still handle an Indiana Jones style adventure, and doesn’t need George Lucas and Harrison Ford to pull it off.
Unfortunately, Tintin isn’t a character that has been embraced by most of the American public, which makes an animated feature quite a challenging task. The film has to introduce the primary characters, the titular boy reporter and his faithful sidekick dog, Snowy, as well as supporting characters like the bumbling Interpol agents Thomson and Thomson, while crafting a narrative based on Tintin’s adventures, but without making anyone feel excluded for not being familiar with, or alienated for prior knowledge of, the characters before stepping into the theater. I’m happy to say the narrative is crafted well enough that newcomers will find themselves quickly caught up with the landscape of the film, while older fans will find plenty of Easter eggs early on, in the form of passive references to Tintin’s previous adventures.
The adventure this time around has to do with a model ship Tintin acquires in the film’s opening scene. Despite numerous, rapid warnings not to take the ship (or maybe because of them), Tintin finds himself, along with pal Snowy, on a huge adventure that has to do with the legacy of an old warship, the Unicorn, and the descendant of the captain of that vessel, Captain Haddock. As Tintin and Captain Haddock form an alliance to find the Unicorn and a possible treasure it was carrying in its heyday, they find themselves pursued on land, at sea, and in the air, as they evade the mysterious Sakharine, who is also in search of the treasure. But there is more to the story of the Unicorn, Haddock, and Sakharine then it seems, and Tintin is in for a world of adventure trying to uncover all of it.
Tintin is Spielberg’s first foray into the animated world, after countless live action movies. Even though it’s new territory for the director, it comes across as a very comfortable fit. The plot and action feel exactly like one of the Indiana Jones flicks, and his usual partnership with composer John Williams creates the epic feel an adventure like this needs. I know that the plan is that a second Tintin film would be directed by Peter Jackson (who serves as producer on this film), with Spielberg producing, but overall Tintin makes me wish the director would add more animation work in his future. I don’t know how he feels about working in the medium, but I think his achievement in the look and the feel of the film stands up to any of his live action films.
The animation style for the film does make use of motion-capture, which can be dangerous territory for filmmakers. How many movies has acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis made that have been lambasted for having soulless, empty eyes due to the animation style? Spielberg manages to overcome that hurdle by keeping a stylized look to the film. It would have been easy to go with the simple, three-color look of the original Tintin comics (and there is a nice nod to that style early in the film), but Spielberg ends up blending the cartoon origins of the character with a more realistic appearance. The result is a high quality somewhat-cartoonish animation that conveys emotion and action with style and grace. Spielberg’s live-action filmmaking experience helps him use the camera in a way that quickly absorbs the audience and makes it easy to forget what you’re watching was largely created in the digital world.
While Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, King Kong) does an admirable job as the titular Tintin, the truth is that the lead character is probably the weakest of the bunch. Every scene they are in is stolen by Tintin’s pet dog, Snowy, and Captain Haddock. Haddock, portrayed by that veteran of vocal motion-capture work, Andy Serkis, continues the legacy of the actor’s powerful career. The drunkard character needs the audience to care and listen in order to advance the plot and heighten the action, but he also has to be found a bit reprehensible in order to create some of the comedic beats in the story. Serkis pulls that balance off masterfully and it will be a shame that yet again his work will be overlooked. Snowy, on the other hand, is a completely digital creation, who not only steals scenes, but manages to handle the action when the focus is completely on him, such as a scene where Tintin has been knocked unconscious and kidnapped. Complete credit needs to be given to the animators who created the digital dog with a skill that equals the talent Serkis brings to his human performance.
Tintin is a film that was conceived and designed as a 3D release, which means that became my preferred way of seeing the movie (the design, as well as the fact that my local theater left me little choice in seeing it in a 2D presentation). While there are a few scenes that make effective use of the 3D presentation, particularly a chase scene towards the end of the movie that features crowded streets and a bird soaring just out of reach, most of the movie left me unimpressed when it came to the 3D design. I don’t think I would have been cheated by catching the movie in a flat presentation instead of having to shell out a few bucks more for the glasses and a few memorable scenes.
The biggest disappointment with Tintin has absolutely nothing to do with what Spielberg and company manage or don’t manage to do. The truth is that The Adventures of Tintin is a brilliantly assembled adventure film that’s probably more accessible to the whole family than Raiders of the Lost Ark or any of the other Indiana Jones movies (there are no melting faces in Tintin, for example). The biggest problem is that there just isn’t interest in these characters or this movie in the United States, and Spielberg’s and Jackson’s names just aren’t enough to fill theaters with such lackluster response to the content. The people who don’t see it are missing out on one of Spielberg’s best pictures in the past few years, particularly for films aimed at the whole family. Those who see it are sure to be wowed by Tintin.