It may seem laughable to say this about a director of his fame and stature, but director Steven Spielberg kind of needed a win with this one. His two huge TV projects (“Falling Skies” and “Terra Nova”) fizzled this year. And, believe it or not, it’s been six years since he made a good movie (Munich) and nine since he made a great one (Minority Report). But, with his first foray into the world of animation, Spielberg has a solid win. And what makes it a win, despite its flaws, is the amount of heart both Spielberg and his collaborators poured into it. The intrepid Belgian comic book figure, Tintin, and his canine sidekick Snowy have been adventuring for nearly a century now and, as such, have wormed their way into the hearts of millions. The creative team behind the film are no exception. Among Tintin’s longtime fans are producer (but, really, co-director) Peter Jackson, the talented artists at Weta Workshop, and the brilliant screenwriting duo Steven Moffat (“Sherlock,” “Doctor Who”) and Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz). Their love, a childish and sincere one, is evident with every faithful line of dialogue and each painstakingly rendered hair on Snowy’s body. But does that love translate into something both longtime Tintin fans and newcomers can enjoy? Great snakes, it does.
When he first started writing “The Adventures of Tintin in 1929, author Hergé had children in mind. And what better director to capture the wonder and excitement of a childhood love than Steven Spielberg? (Look what he did for dinosaurs.) But what makes Tintin so universally beloved by readers of all ages is exactly what makes him a tricky lead character on screen. For those of you unfamiliar with the comics, Tintin is a boy reporter and amateur sleuth who, along with his dog and a motley crew of friends, gets involved in high-stakes adventures and madcap hijinks all around the globe. Tintin is of an indeterminate age (boyishly young, yet lives alone and is gainfully employed), has blandly likable features, an affable demeanor and is unfailingly earnest. To be honest, the most exciting thing about him is his magnificent quiff. So while a blank slate character is perfect for comic book adventures, allowing any reader to imagine him or herself in Tintin’s place, it makes for a rather ho-hum character. Imagine if Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner were the actual focus of that first Pirates of The Caribbean movie. Now imagine him even more vanilla. And no one is really to blame for Tintin’s lack of luster, not the animators and certainly not the very capable Jamie Bell. But with the mid-twentieth century derring-do of the plot bringing to mind both Indiana Jones and The Mummy (the first, fun one), the audience might find themselves longing for Harrison Ford’s wry humor or Brendan Fraser’s anti-heroics.
But the trouble with Tintin doesn’t last too long because a third of the way into the plot he meets his own Captain Jack Sparrow in the form of Captain Archibald Haddock, played with all the brilliance and nuance we’ve come to expect from Andy Serkis. This is Serkis’s second masterful motion capture performance of the year (the first being Caeser in The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes a.k.a. the only reason to watch The Rise of The Planet Of The Apes). Frankly, there’s really no point in attempting a motion capture film without him. You hear me, James Cameron? Serkis brings wit and pathos to the drunken, bombastic sea captain and hogs all the best laughs. And while I missed Haddock’s famously blue dialogue, my inner child clapped with glee at every “Blistering barnacle!” Serkis certainly isn’t the only talented voice in the crew, the often heroic Daniel Craig obviously took great delight in every villainous sneer. And while Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are largely wasted as the bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson, audiences might enjoy trying to tell them apart. Which is half the fun of those characters anyway. Once Serkis is aboard, the nimbly plotted story roars ahead at full speed, whisking our heroes halfway across the world, stranding them on land and sea, but never falling prey to unnecessary complications or convolutions. Moffat and Wright, weaving their plot from three of the Tintin books, also neatly side-stepped any of the problematic and archaic depictions of other races that make the Hergé’s classics a little unpalatable for modern audiences.
But once the pace reaches breakneck speeds, and Spielberg unleashes one meticulously choreographed action sequence after the next, the movie positively shines. For years Spielberg intended to make a live action version of Tintin and while there are certainly some Uncanny Valley issues with this film (particularly with Tintin and the odd, off-putting sheen of his rendered skin), the motion capture technique allowed Spielberg to fully embrace the whiz bang feel of the comics. There is one particularly long chase sequence down the twisted, dusty roads of an African hillside town that is breathtaking. Heroes, dog, falcon, villains and vehicles are all a-whirl in a dizzying, but never disorienting descent. Fans of the comic books will also be delighted by the trademark background antics and the perfect depiction of Snowy, who, though fully digital, feels as real as any cinema pup. In fact, Spielberg gets so much right, it’s hard to believe this is his first crack. But it won’t be his, or at least Tintin’s, last adventure. The film ends with an obvious nod to a sequel (as does Hergé’s book) and with Peter Jackson slated to direct, I can’t wait to see what fine mess they get into next.