Wednesday, December 14, 2011

review: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg)

The holiday movie season is now upon us, and first up to bat is the computer generated animated adaptation of a legendary comic book (or 'bande déssinée' as they are known in French) from a legendary director. How is that to raise some stakes? North Americans are not as familiar with the character of Tintin and his funny looking hairdo as they are with other mainstream stories. That is not terribly surprising, what with the gargantuan amount of home grown comic book stories from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Vertigo and so many other popular, successful publishers. It is true that Tintin, being a Belgian creation from the mind of one Hergé (pen name), reaches out to the sensibilities of European comic readers more so than North Americans. The dominant reason why this movie fan is familiar with the source material is his Québec, Canada upbringing, that being an officially francophone province and therefore a more interesting market for books such as Tintin than elsewhere on the continent. Now comes the big budget interpretation of the material from a director who speaks no French but, in preparing the film, professed his love for the stories and desire to bring something special to the big screen.

Summarizing the plot of The Adventures of Tintin is strange business since, given the familiarity with the original books, it is clear that multiple stories have been moulded into one, which is odd. That being said, this review will respect the art form at hand, that being cinema, and treat it as such with as little comparisons to the comics as possible. Onwards then: famous newspaper reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), visiting market one day, finds a beautiful model ship for sale named the Unicorn. The handsome vessel pleases him and he goes ahead with the purchase, yet is immediately faced with odd warnings from an American stranger as well as offers to buy the model off him from a rich, mean looking aristocratic man named Sakharine (Daniel Craig!). The mystery surrounding the Unicorn grows ever more with death threats and when Sakharine's less than savoury true nature reveals itself. Once Tintin reads up on the history of the Unicorn, his reporter instincts get the better of him: he must get to the bottom of the story as to why everyone is after the boat, although clues seem to point towards a marvellous treasure somewhere! Along the way his detective friends Thompson and Thomson ( Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) help out as they can, and an unexpected friendship is formed with an old, alcoholic ship captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis) whom, it turns out, has an old score to settle with non other than Sakharine himself. Of course, let us not forget Tintin's most trusted sidekick of all, Snowy the dog!

The Adventures of Tintin is director Spielberg's first foray into the world of animated film. Despite this new territory, the iconic filmmaker finds his ground quite comfortably, especially with regards to pacing, scale, stakes, and the near unlimited camera tricks which can be performed, be they during docile moments of dialogue  or stupendously detailed and lengthy action sequences. For those who have yet to see the picture and wonder what the previous statement is referring to, one need only look back to all the marvellous extended action scenes Spielberg and his teams have created in the past. Examples include the fist fight next to the propeller plane in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the over the top battle at the night club at the start of Temple of Doom, the audacious chase in Minority Report when Tom Cruise is jumping off the tops of sliding cars, the initial T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park or even the double T-Rex attack from Jurassic Park: The Lost World, just to name a few. Each of those individual moments not only help serve story by driving the characters from one location to another and thus continuing their quests, but in of themselves are prime examples of creativity, an appreciation of character behaviour (by the nature of how they themselves behave within said action sequences) and intricate camera work that bring the unfolding events to life. Take all of that, impressive enough to begin with in the hands of a master such as Spielberg, and then allow that director to unleash unlimited imagination in an animated world. The results are wondrous to behold, vivacious even. The level of detail that has gone into the fabrication of the three or four prolonged chases and action scenes, from the content to the presentation, practically commands awe. There is a motor cycle chase which occurs in the streets of a Moroccan city which baffles the mind with its juggling act of complexity, comedy and action world logic. There is so much happening on screen that it begs to ask how did the scene read on paper when Spielberg pitched his idea to the studio? Tintin is a reminder that, as great as some other directors are at building tension and action, one should absolutely forget Spielberg. This man knows exactly what he is doing. 


The visual awes are not merely limited to sequences of thrills, but also in moments when characters are merely recounting past stories, or when certain transition to others. There is a stunning moment when the Captain Haddock is revealing the story of one of his ancestors to Tintin. This ancestor was a sea man whose ship was attacked by pirates one eventful night, but rather than simply have the picture cut from the past to the present, each transition is done in its own unique way each and every time, such as having the camera zoom into a pirate's sword (as we are in the past, living the battle on the sea vessel), revealing Haddock's face (present day). The camera continuously zooms until we the viewers have 'broken the time barrier' of sorts and have returned to the present, in the same room as Tintin listens to the Captain. It is phenomenal. The animation, produced through the usage of the oft-maligned motion capture technology, brings each character to life with startling detail. Everyone looks like a cartoon character, yet they all look quite lifelike. It is a peculiar feeling to see such creatures prance around and interact with one another. Much like Avatar stunned people two years ago (at around this time of year, ironically enough), Tintin is a feast for the eyes, bringing live action and animation even closer together still.

It is not all about the animation, mind you. There are living, breathing characters who populate this world. Granted, Tintin is an Indiana Jones type adventure, so those expecting extraordinary character development might leave some disappointed, but all of the principal individuals involved have their stakes properly introduced and handled. Tintin himself is presented in quite interesting fashion, to be honset. He is the lone person in all of this hoopla who does not, in essence, have to be there. The catch is that, as a reporter always on the prowl for the best story, he does feel as if he has to be there, which is a neat little character trait the film plays on every now and then. If handled improperly, questions might be warranted as to what purpose he serves, but such is not the case, thankfully.

What imperfections exist lie in the plotting. The script was penned by some very talented people, among them Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame) and Joe Cornish, who made a name for himself earlier this year with Attack the Block. Given their stellar previous inputs into the world of cinema and entertainment, the flimsiness of the script shan't bring them down in the opinion of the article's author. It is not that the script is poor, only that after a while, attention to the details of the clues becomes more and more a trying task. By the midway point, one simply wants to follow Tintin and Haddock as they proceed from point A to Z. That part is amazing and works as an adventurous epic. The 'why' gets a bit confusing after a while and its overall importance, when weighed against all the fun happening, is minimized. Some characters makes appearances but in truth have no business being in the picture, as though, Wright, Cornish and Spielberg simply had to fit in as much from the books as possible. Fan service, and nothing more, but the problem is that fan service rarely, if ever, helps a story.

The Adventures of Tintin should please those seeking fun escapism. It is the sort of adventure film only Steven Spielberg knows how to share. Beautiful to look at, fun characters to tag along with, and some inventive action sequences should make a worthy night out at the movies.

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