Review: The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin

Rating

Director
Steven Spielberg
Screenplay
Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish (Comics: Hergé)
Length
107 min.
Starring
Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Daniel Mays, Gad Elmaleh, Toby Jones, Joe Starr, Enn Reitel, Mackenzie Crook
MPAA Rating
PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking

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Review
The unenviable task of adapting an internationally-celebrated comic strip character and bringing him to mostly unfamiliar American audiences was rightly put in the hands of two craftsmen whose careers have been defined by their attention to detail and love for action-adventure. The Adventures of Tintin is a rousing event that will hopefully whet American appetites for more.

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson jointly picked up the rights to Tintin, the brain child of Belgian artist Hergé. Both are intimately familiar with the character and that association is a boon to the computer animated film they have put together. For the first film (future films are planned, but were hinged on the success of this effort), Spielberg takes on the role of director while Jackson takes producer duties. The script, written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish finds Tintin, a young journalist and snoop (voiced by Jamie Bell), and his trusty fox terrier Snowy, are confronted with a confounding mystery surrounding an old model ship, a lost treasure and a ruthless villain who will do anything he can to get it.

Sakharine (voiced with all the malicious intent possible by Daniel Craig) has long sought the sunken treasure from an old ship commanded by an ancestor of Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis). After Tintin is kidnapped, he uncovers the alcoholic Haddock also onboard a steamer bound for parts unknown and together, they escape in search of the ship and its treasure, hoping to beat Sakharine to it. Along the way, Haddock must try to remember the riddle that was passed down to him by his father, which the booze is keeping murky, and in the process learning how to cope without his enabler.

The material in The Adventures of Tintin has a childlike mentality but is decidedly adult in theme. Most children might not find a lot to relate to in the film, but that in itself may be its biggest strength. For years, animation has been the domain of children. Only as Pixar emerged as the preeminent animation house has the genre become more accessible to adults while still being friendly for children. Motion capture animation’s arrival has tended towards darker material with the likes of Beowulf showing that the medium can be decidedly anti-family. In the hands of Spielberg, the tonality is a bit lighter, giving it a few elements that can be enjoyed by kids. And for a film like The Adventures of Tintin, that distinction is important.

A bridge between childhood and adulthood, Tintin‘s titular hero is himself a young man, one whose naivety about the dangers of the real world is partly informed, but largely extant. The film suggests he’s had adventures, but none quite so dangerous as the one in which the audience finds him. As an amateur detective, Tintin belies his age with a sharp mind and quick wit that should act as an excellent role-model for teenagers who want to look towards the future while still retaining their youthful vigor.

The film’s acting strengths hinge entirely on Serkis’ able voicing of Haddock. Anyone familiar with his work in The Lord of the Rings films as Gollum and as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the same, might be surprised at first to hear Serkis in the role. His performance is little like his more physical roles in those films, which is a fantastic thing. There’s a maturity to this performance that perfectly reflects the film’s thematic maturity. Here we have an actor whose performances have seemed a bit juvenile even if talented, growing up into a role that is more creative and demanding emotionally. Serkis keeps Haddock from becoming a one-note punchline generator and creates an intensely likeable character.

If there’s a type of movie that Steven Spielberg does well, it’s action-adventure. With films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park defining his career as one of the great, broad-appeal filmmakers, Spielberg’s decision to make his first foray into animation is a welcome one. Choosing a celebrated character that isn’t terribly familiar to American audiences provides a challenge, but is one which Spielberg’s should have little trouble overcoming, building on his own brand. The film does this well, displaying his acute knack for exciting adventure hooks and memorable chase scenes.

Tintin isn’t without its flaws. Spielberg hasn’t crafted a perfect or near-perfect film in over a decade. While each of his movies are above standard efforts that outshine many of his contemporaries, there’s always some nagging issue that, once it takes hold is impossible to shake off. I’ll set aside the notion that tragic elements are never relieved at the end of the film. Even in films like Schindler’s List, he leaves things with an optimistic or at least positive conclusion. The Adventures of Tintin does this, but the tone and genre of the film lend themselves to this type of storytelling, thus why I mention it both don’t admonish him for it.

My major issue with the picture is the animation itself. With computer animation finding new ways to create realistic imagery, it’s hard to believe that a technique that records an actors physical movement and translates that into character movement would have issues with realism. Much of Tintin feels very tactile, an environment you can almost breathe; however, there’s a scene leading up to the grand chase scene that culminates the second act. Haddock and Tintin are attending an operatic performance where they believe Sakharine is planning to steal the last model ship he needs to find the lost treasure. This entire scene is broad and expansive, but feels hollow. The crowd of non-captured people look fake and indistinguished. When you compare a detailed character like Haddock or Tintin to these other faces, they look bland and inexpressive. While this might be easy to chalk up to the need to create a crowd without extras, the surrounding environment is likewise oversaturated and flat. It’s as if the animators got to this scene and decided to take a break or let inexperienced designers go to work on them. The entire scene feels like something ripped from a direct-to-video animated film where everything looks cheap and mass produced. It isn’t enough to take away from the great animation work in the rest of the film, but it’s not of the same quality level, which is disconcerting.

By now, it would be difficult to defend motion capture as a still-emerging technique as it’s been around for the better part of a decade now. Until this film, I never really had an interest in the style. While The Lord of the Rings films used it sparingly to create the impressive Gollum character, the other films that have come out fully using motion capture have just looked cheap and outside my area of interest. Spielberg may change my impression of the technique, but I’ll need to see a few more films that arise in its shadow to decide if it’s a medium that interests me.

The Adventures of Tintin is a film that you owe yourself to see. You may not be familiar with the characters and you may not care about motion capture animation, but both camps should have little trouble finding satisfaction in Tintin.

Review Written
July 18, 2012

Original Review

Note: By mistake, I re-wrote this review in July of 2012. Below is the original review written in December of 2011.

Since Steven Spielberg’s first adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, the Oscar winning director has been consistently redefining the adventure genre. Whether it’s kid-friendly sci-fi/adventure E.T., prehistoric theme park gone wrong Jurassic Park or his vaunted Indiana Jones franchise, Spielberg has vast experience in the milieu. The Adventures of Tintin puts to shame his previous two adventure outings, the abysmal Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the poorly constructed Jurassic sequel The Lost World.

The story is adapted from an acclaimed series of comics by Hergé about a ginger-haired reporter constantly in search of new and exciting stories that expose the nefarious world around him. More popular around the world than in the United States, director Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson felt the time was right to introduce Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) to American audiences. If you are at all familiar with the titular hero, you’ll be quite excited about this big screen incarnation that highlights the capabilities of motion capture animation in ways that Robert Zemeckis’ last few outings have not.

Motion capture animation isn’t a new technology. Born out of traditional visual effects animation, the style has been employed in a number of ways, most notably by Zemeckis in his animated spectacles The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. While making an entire film using motion capture technology is relatively new, Jackson was one of the first key filmmakers to create an entirely digitized character using the medium in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, bringing to life the loathsome and pitiable Gollum. It should come as no surprise then that Jackson’s friend and Gollum actor Andy Serkis is on board for this Jackson-Spielberg outing.

Serkis plays the role of Captain Archibal Haddock, his most realistic portrayal to date (after Gollum, he played the great ape in King Kong and the key primate of Rise of the Planet of the Apes). A chameleon of great talent, Serkis has shown that motion capture characters, regardless of their final realization on the screen, are as much a strong acting performance as anything. His voice almost unrecognizable, Serkis’ Haddock is crazy, drunk and one of the most fun parts of the film.

The Adventuers of Tintin starts out with Tintin making a quiet acquisition at a local flea market, a multi-masted replica of a long lost ship called the Unicorn. When a sneering collector (Daniel Craig) attempts to purchase the ship from Tintin, he begins to suspect something unusual surrounds the ship, which jump starts his personal interest in the case. After some creative action sequences, Tintin begins to realize that the ship along with two other replicas holds the key to the location of the treasure the Unicorn was carrying when it went down.

While I have the utmost respect for Weta Digital and the work Jackson has elicited from them, the motion capture animation technique is still in need of refinement. Much like traditional computer animation has slowly grown and developed its capability for realism, so too must motion capture technology progress. While early scenes in the film are very well done and the final dockside encounter superbly animated, there’s a weak section in the middle as Tintin and Haddock attend a operatic performance where the bright lighting of the scene highlights the more glaring unnatural movements of characters on the screen. The facial animations are also a bit lifeless in these scenes, but as the action of this segment ramps up, you begin to notice the glaring issues less and get swept away by the most thrilling chase sequence in any film animated or live action in many years.

Celebrating Tintin wouldn’t be as fun without his lovable, fluffy white dog Snowy. Snowy doesn’t speak, but provides some of the funniest moments of the film. Children’s films often rely to quickly on obvious humor to please the little tykes in the audience, but Spielberg does a fine job avoiding those pitfalls with the film, keeping most of the more cutesy funny bits to a minimum.

There aren’t many adventure films with this much excitement, intrigue or laughs these days. It’s nice to see a film like The Adventures of Tintin relying on more traditional narrative techniques and avoiding unnecessary action and violence in service of thrills, for a story with more thrills than plot is not really an adventure. And this is most definitely an adventure.

Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: Animated Feature
Probables: Sound Mixing
Potentials: Original Score, Sound Editing
Unlikelies: None

Review Written
December 27, 2011

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