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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

‘Tintin’s Adventures Never Cease To Astonish, No Matter How Unexpected


The Adventures of Tintin:  4 out of 5
Captain Haddock: You do know what you're doing, right?
Tintin: Relax. I interviewed a pilot once!
I was very excited when it was first announced that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson would be collaborating on film adaptations of the popular “Adventures of Tintin” comic book series by Hergé.  Having long been a fan of the series, both in comic form and in its HBO TV series format, putting these two master filmmakers behind the camera for a new, big screen adaptation was a pretty easy way to get me amped.  Now as a friend of mine wisely put it, the popularity of Tintin in America is similar to the popularity of soccer.  The character is much more of an international icon and the character’s depiction skews pretty broadly.  Opposed to the gritty rough and tumble nature of many American heroes, Tintin tends to find himself in lighthearted adventures and peril resolved with playful coincidences.  As a result, The Adventures of Tintin is a fairly lighthearted adventure that happens to be incredibly well made thanks to Spielberg’s directorial handle on a 3D motion capture film.


This particular Tintin adventures is an adaptation of The Secret of the Unicorn.  It centers on Tintin (Jamie Bell), the renowned young boy journalist and his highly intelligent dog Snowy.  While browsing through a market in a European town, Tintin spots the model of a particular sailing ship, with a unicorn as the figurehead.  After buying the model, Tintin is immediately accosted by two individuals with high demand for it as well.  One of these men is Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a name that could not seem more evil and he has the facial hair to match.  True to form, a foreboding mystery surrounds Sakharine’s desire for the model and Tintin later learns from him that two of the same model ship exists, each containing a hidden scroll, with a coded phrase that requires all three to properly decrypt.  In search of a story and seemingly embroiled in an adventure that has already led to some danger, Tintin has the desire to press on with finding out the truth.

Believing that he is purposefully hiding the scroll, Sakharine kidnaps Tintin and imprisons him aboard a ship.  Naturally, Tintin manages to escape his room and meets up with the also imprisoned Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who has a major connection with Sakharine and the secret of the unicorn-headed sailing ships.  Tintin and Haddock (along with Snowy) must now team up in an effort to reveal the secrets of the unicorn.  This will involve traveling and getting chased across exotic locales, Haddock recalling the stories of his ancestors, and using a lot of quick thinking and coincidences to aid in the trio’s success.  Always unintentionally exciting times for Tintin it seems, but he always seems to land on his feet.


Along with Spielberg, there is quite the impressive pedigree of filmmakers that were involved with bringing this new version of Tintin to the screen.  Producer Peter Jackson and Weta Digital certainly aided with having a shared passion for the character and the abilities to make an impressive looking mo-cap film.  Famed television writer Steven Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock) and filmmakers Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) were all involved in crafting the screenplay.  Together, I think each participant involved managed to succeed in bringing the exact sort of tone that is required to successfully adapt a Tintin story.
Tintin: We've got bad news. We've only got one bullet.
Captain Haddock: What's the good news?
Tintin: We've got one bullet.
An interesting point to bring up is that this is actually Spielberg’s first film since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Many will claim that this is the movie that ‘Indy 4’ should have been and I can see why.  When Raiders of the Lost Ark first came out, it was compared to the Tintin comic books by some reviews, which confused an unfamiliar Spielberg at the time, but he has since become a huge fan of the series.  Now, having made several Indy films and making subtle references to the style of Tintin, it is very easy to see how the two can connect.  There is an old-fashioned serial vibe that is contained within both series’ that allows for a lighthearted sense of danger, combined with humor, and a good amount of slapstick.  Yes, Indiana Jones is a much cooler person, but Tintin’s quick thinking and determination make him a proper adventurer as well.


To add another point about Indy 4, I had issues with the cinematography in that film.  As much as I admire Janusz Kaminski’s work in Spielberg’s other films, his attempt to retrofit his style on top of the work done by Douglas Slocombe in the previous Indy films, mixed with the unfortunately ample amount of CGI present did not sit well with me.  With Tintin however, similar to how Pixar uses other master cinematographers as camera and lighting consultants, Kaminski managed to assert himself in this world and it paid off, as the look and visual style of this film is perfectly handled, given the variety of elements present – from swashbuckling adventure to touches of noir.  And better yet, the 3D is quite good.  It is not as fantastic an experience as Hugo, but it is certainly well utilized.  2011 had me most curious about how well 3D could be employed by Spielberg, Scorsese, and Bay and I have been very pleased with the results and how well it speaks for the format’s future, were it to be further handled in proper ways.

Getting back to the visuals and how wonderful the animation is, Tintin does have a whole lot of wow moments.  Two highlights include a fantastic flashback sequence that involves what could be some of the best pirate action I have ever seen as well as another sequence, which is one sustained 5-minute long take of a downhill chase through the streets of a town to the harbor.  It is these moments of visual splendor, along with several other fantastic action beats and cleverly constructed sequences that really highlight the detailed level of animation that really emphasize how wonderfully freeing motion capture filmmaking can be.  I love getting to use forms of the word “whimsy” when it truly applies and Tintin really seems to have a whimsical sense about it, which has allowed Spielberg to have a lot of fun messing around with creative ideas that are not quite possible with live-action filmmaking.
Tintin: How's your thirst for adventure, Captain?
Captain Haddock: Unquenchable.

The actors involved in this film all bring enough to the proceedings; given how the characters are handled in Tintin adventures (I’ll get back to that soon).  Jamie Bell manages to provide the youthful determination that is needed for Tintin.  Daniel Craig’s work makes a good argument for why I don’t need mo-cap models to resemble the actors portraying them.  Craig manages to bring the right amount of villainy to his character, without having to look like an evil version of Bond.  Andy Serkis continues to have a great list of mo-cap performances to call back to.  The eccentric Capt. Haddock is wonderfully realized by Serkis, who manages to be all sorts of fun in the way he approaches a character that is part alcoholic, part foolish, and part genuine hero (it’s in his genes, after all).  And among a number of smaller supporting roles, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost manage to appear as a couple of identical bumbling detectives who wish to help Tintin.  Special mention also must go to the completely CG performance that was Snowy, the amazing dog, who constantly helps Tintin and Haddock during their journeys.

I think the easiest thing to associate with this film as a problem is with its title character.  Tintin is decidedly vanilla when it comes labeling his personality.  This ties it very closely to the comics, as Tintin is never really a character that develops a fascinating backstory or even evolves much as the series progresses.  Tintin is simply a young reporter, with generally very little at stake, but is full of youthful exuberance and determination to do what is right.  This may make him register as a flat persona overall, but something about his well-meaning nature keeps me happy to follow his story.

 
The other issue may be the story’s reliance on conveniences and coincidences that manage to get our heroes out of various instances of danger.  This is again something that is very true to the original stories, with less emphasis on Tintin being able to handle himself in action (which he can, when needed) and more so on quick-thinking and the helpful nature of suitable environments that tilt favor towards the good guys.  The film’s reliance on the greater good prevailing and sticking with slapstick humor may be a crutch that the film leans heavily, but as a fan of the source material, I was plenty pleased.  If there was an issue that I would want to take up with the film, it’s how I think it peaks early and feels anticlimactic; however, the overwhelming sense of fun I was having for the majority of the runtime made up for it.

I had a lot of funfun with Tintin.  The movie is very likable, lighthearted, and made with such a sheer sense of joy for the motion capture film format.  It may have presented an interesting challenge to see how a live-action version of this film may have played out with today’s technology, but I think it was a much wiser decision to go with motion capture.  Despite his love for shooting on film, Spielberg seems to have easily embraced what shooting in a digital world had to offer; as he is allowed to pump up his Spielbergian filmmaking touches to a high degree throughout the feature.  Add to that the superb quality of the animation, combined with the fun score by John Williams, and its overall breeziness, and you have a dazzling adventure film fit for everyone.  What it lacks in thematic complexity, it makes up for in friendly earnestness and I’ll be curious to see if American audiences embrace it as much as the rest of the world.
Tintin:  We can’t go back.  Not now…not now.

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