Within minutes, a smile crept across my face while I watched Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin. After being dazzled by impressive opening titles, just a few minutes later, I started to see the manifestations of an action sequence setting up in front of me and I quietly exhaled at the thought that Steven Spielberg is back making youthful adventure again. Some of my favorite adventure film memories come from the Spielberg archives and I immediately warmed to the idea of what I thought was going to unfold before my eyes. An exciting and impressively produced animated film, The Adventures Of Tintin may occasionally get in its own way, and may sacrifice character development for visual mastery, but there is a lot to embrace and like about a film and a project Spielberg has wanted to make for nearly 30 years.
Frankly, the character Tintin and the comic books, created by French author Hergé, have not carried forward, at least in America, with generation after generation and seem to always be a long-lost discovery whenever their name or existence comes up in conversation. Dating all the way back to 1929, Hergé’s stories comprised 24 different books and often were set in exotic locations. Hergé essentially constructed an entire universe which inhabited his diverse and rich cast of characters and standing apart from his contemporaries, Hergé’s Tintin books were not just conventional comic books with adventure sequences and good vs. evil plotlines. They also embodied teachable elements – facts, history, and a broader world view than Hergé’s contemporaries would have ever considered. Distinctive and unique and with all of its international acclaim and exposure, Tintin still had never reached the eyes of a famed A-list director named Spielberg until his 1981 film Raiders Of The Lost Ark drew comparisons to Hergé’s series. As history bears out, Spielberg was captivated by what he say and eventually purchased developmental rights to Tintinwith long-time collaborator Kathleen Kennedy, prior to Hergé’s death in 1983.
Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a barely-in-his-20’s journalist who always has his loving dog, Snowy, at his side. At a European flea market, Tintin purchases a replica of a sailing ship named The Unicorn, and almost instantaneously stumbles into the lives of two different men who want to purchase the ship from Tintin straightaway. When Tintin refuses the first would-be buyer, he is warned that he is in imminent and immediate danger. When Tintin turns down a “name your price” bid from the second potential buyer, Tintin decides to head home.
When Snowy and a stray cat chase each other through Tintin’s house, the ship is knocked over and the mast breaks apart. Frustrated, Tintin sets the ship aside and goes about his business; not seeing the metallic scroll which rolled out of the ship and under a desk. Tintin treks out to the library for more information about The Unicorn, quizzical about why two strangers would demand purchase of it. When he returns home, he finds his home has been ransacked and the model ship gone. Calling back on his research, Tintin decides to visit a place known as Marlinspike Hall, referenced and possessing specific ties to The Unicorn.
At this point, Spielberg’s film shifts from deliberate pacing to an accelerated surge as Tintin encounters the “Name Your Price” bidder from the market once again. Named Sakharine (Daniel Craig), Tintin comes face to face with the realization that Sakharine is a dangerous man and soon Tintin is caught up in a mesmerizing adventure involving pirates, robbers, ancient scrolls, a mystery involving those scrolls, and a changing number of Unicorn models and ships,. Exciting as this may be, these discoveries only serve to amplify the danger and adventure awaiting Tintin and Snowy.
Perhaps Spielberg’s vision of a Tintin movie likely needed to simmer for 30 years or so because Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin is one ambitious and grand endeavor, featuring cutting edge motion-capture animation and the now ubiquitous 3-D presentation. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s visual successes with Hugo, Spielberg seems to have bought in to the notion, at least with this film, that the 3-D artform might be pliable and worth exploring. As a result, he achieves some impressive visual success with Tintin and delivers the most engaging and welcoming use of the motion-capture technology to date.
As Tintin’s adventures at sea escalate, Spielberg has crafted an impressive landscape of which all of this can play out. The colors and hues are bold and dynamic and the backgrounds are always beautiful to take in. Visually striking, The Adventures Of Tintin may not have the look and feel of Hergé’s classic storybooks, but the tone and the intent to replicate that magic exists in each and every scene. A great number of scenes are fantastic to just take in and let play out in front of you.
Where Tintin stumbles a bit is with a screenplay that aims big and perhaps should have been a bit more humble and connected to the characters written on the page. Some of the characters in Tintin are a bit of an afterthought and it is hard to emotionally connect with anything taking place. One of the things which has defined Steven Spielberg’s more action-oriented films is the shift in pace between the action sequences and the story that needs to be told. When he is at his best, Spielberg typically lets everything breathe and marinate when and where appropriate. At times, especially in the middle of Tintin, adventure clashes with script and there is almost too much happening at once. Screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish have a vision and direction on where they wish to take things, but one of the more problematic elements with the film is that we are still being inundated with exposition and explanation as the story is shifting into its third act. I struggled to keep pace with all of the history, pomp, and circumstance that the screenwriters kept feeding me and while there is bountiful action to enjoy, the cumbersome story seems to lack the intensity and urgency of the action unfolding around it.
And while there are countless other films that would never get a pass from me with a suspect screenplay, I am inclined to give in to Tintin because if I became frustrated trying to sort through the mythology, I was never disappointed in the visuals playing in front of me. Spielberg has flirted around motion-capture, his collaborator Peter Jackson an innovator of the technology, and it comes as no surprise that the greatest motion-capture actor of all time, Andy Serkis, is front and center in this film as well, playing Tintin’s drunken ally Captain Haddock. As a snapshot of where motion-capture technology is and where it can go, Tintin is riveting to watch. Most people will simply relate to the film as an animated cartoon and not realize just how impressive it is that no less than just a few months ago, the technology seemed stunted and doomed (Disney’s ill-advised Mars Needs Moms delivering that message) and the bugaboo associated with the dead-eye/doll eye look of motion-captured human characters appeared permanent. Here, the dead eye/doll eye look is largely and shockingly absent and the movement of all of these characters looks fluid and sanguine.
It may not play easily with younger viewers, who might rightly get bored with all the storylines and context, but for older kids and their parents and siblings, The Adventures Of Tintin is a great deal of fun on a Saturday afternoon or under a blanket at home in front of the TV. Tintin might be the start of a series of adaptations from the Hergé series if the box office returns are strong enough. Overseas, audiences in the United Kingdom have already made the film profitable so chances are good that more Tintin adventures will be on the way. With such a dazzling visual presentation, perhaps Spielberg can assist in simplifying things ever so slightly in the screenplay department next time around and concoct a Tintin tale which will truly resonate with audiences.