The Adventures of Tintin is, "I was completely disappointed'; but that film's director, Steven Spielberg, has set the bar about as high as anyone could for adventure films that marry the narrative innocence of '30s serials with the very best visual effects that the most financially successful directorial career in Hollywood history can buy, and "enjoyable" is where we should be starting at, not where we end.
Herein, we have a young reporter, Tintin (Jamie Bell's voice and physical performance coated in CGI - Tintin, if you missed it somehow, is all done in that newfangled and not very satisfying motion capture thing), somewhere in Europe in roughly the 1930s (theoretically Brussels, though it acts like London). He kicks things off by buying an antique model boat called the Unicorn, and is immediately harassed for it by a villainously thin fellow named Sakharine (Daniel Craig); it turns out that the Unicorn is one of the central pieces of a giant MacGuffin Hunt that takes Tintin to North Africa and back in search of an ancient pirate treasure, aided by his resourceful terrier Snowy, and a blustery, comically drunk Scottish captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis). Incidentally, there are all kinds of moral hand-wringers fretting about the propriety of such trivial jokes made about alcoholism, and I am immensely pleased that I don't give two shits about that; such is what a steady diet of W.C. Fields in childhood will do for you. Anyway, the incidentals are largely unimportant, save that they steadily movie Tintin and Haddock through land, sea, and air into new and better places to have big, family-friendly action setpieces.
The film is based on three of the iconic Tintin graphic novels by the beloved Belgian artist Hergé, adapted by a murderer's row of writers (Steven Moffat started it; Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish finished), and I will confess now rather than later that I've never read a single Tintin story and have only the slightest idea what they're meant to be about (a more geopolitically savvy, duck-free version of Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comics, is my nearest understanding), so I am not in any position to be either delighted or appalled by what Spielberg and crew have done with the characters; even within my tiny knowledge, though it does not seem incredibly bright to take the extremely clean cartoon characters of the original and render them in something damn close to realism only with their cartoon features kept in place, thanks to the magic of the dreaded motion capture which Spielberg's buddy Robert Zemeckis has been riding into the ground for most of the last decade. Since I've just gone and brought it up, I guess I should address that fact: yes, mo-cap; yes, Spielberg's first mo-cap, his first animated feature of any sort (I'm going to keep clear of the "is mo-cap animation?" argument*), his first 3-D movie, and so on. It is, in short, a great big toybox full of new technologies for a director who has, historically, done as well as anyone else in Hollywood at turning the best and brightest new technologies into great big fun popcorn movies.
This much, no one can deny: The Adventures of Tintin is the best-looking mo-cap film that has yet been made. Which isn't the same as having the best mo-cap (that remains the titular figure from the 2005 King Kong, directed by Tintin producer Peter Jackson), and it holds true that the best mo-cap film is still a mo-cap film, and while nothing in Tintin is quite as richly nightmarish as the waxen-faced corpse of Tom Hanks sauntering through The Polar Express or the kinky video game avatar of Angelina Jolie in Beowulf, it's still a bit eye-watering in places. Particularly in the beginning, before one has a chance to really get used to the sight of almost photorealistic people with comic book facial features, which we've never really had in the movies before, and Jesus Christ is it ever something the brain's not really equipped to deal with. That these beings populating the movie are occasionally given to moving sometimes in very odd, exaggeratedly slow ways - almost like CGI characters being molded onto footage of actual humans has suddenly given way to fully-animated CGI characters performing outlandish stunts, except it's really hard to match precise human movement to animator-created movement. Almost exactly like that.
The point being, there's a whole new world of visual storytelling possibilities that this opens up for Spielberg, one of the few mainstream American filmmakers with an honest-to-God visual sensibility (we can talk all we like about whether or not this makes Spielberg a good mainstream American filmmaker); the results are erratic, leaning towards good. The problem, I think, is twofold: on the one hand, Spielberg has been basically absent from cinema for six years, following a tremendous burst of activity and creativity from 2001-2005; his sole film in that span was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which was presumably not a very energizing or intellectually taxing project for him, so Tintin amounts to him having to re-learn his craft after a protracted absence. Except, he doesn't have to re-learn his craft; he's dealing with a whole new method of filmmaking altogether, and considering that he was one of the last anti-digital holdouts in Hollywood, it's easy to assume that mo-cap does not anyway play to his strengths or interests.
The result of all this is a movie that feels very experimental in the least exciting sense: you can almost watch Spielberg feeling his way around this whole CGI world thing without ever becoming totally comfortable with it. There is a whole lot of wandering through the 3-D animated space for no reason other than because, what the hell, we can do that now, and I frequently found myself wanting to scream "Stop moving the fucking camera!" in the first 30 minutes or so, before this simply faded into the background and became just part of the film's vocabulary, albeit an irritating part. Truth be told, it was this more than anything that felt like Jackson leaning a bit too heavily into Spielberg's space (the Lord of the Rings movies were absolutely rotten with overly-busy camera movement), and although we are assured that Spielberg has been interesting in directing a Tintin movie since the early '80s - right around the time that his Raiders of the Lost Ark rendered a Tintin movie essentially moot, funnily enough - it always kind of feels like he was a willing director-for-hire on Jackson's baby.
And yet, rather more frequently than I have thus far let on, everything gels, and The Adventures of Tintin turns into exactly that animated Indiana Jones picture that it was supposed to be - I almost said "family-friendly Indiana Jones picture", but feared that would be a tautology, given that those films are already best enjoyed by the 12-year-old part of your brain. There's a stunningly choreographed long "take" or whatever you call it in mo-cap, in which the main characters are all separated and then joined back together in pursuit of three Sheets of MacGuffin up and down and over a fictional Moroccan city depicted in awkwardly colonialist tones, a glorious bit of popcorn movie nonsense that could never, ever happen in live-action, dragging in the influences of '30s swashbucklers, Jacques Tati-style physical comedy, and even ol' Indiana himself. Even better are the flashbacks to a 17th Century pirate battle done up in beautiful CGI firelight and filled with giddy match-cuts to Haddock's enthusiastic pantomime of the battle (whatever else can be said about the film's refusal to live up to the best of Spielberg, the director's regular editor Michael Kahn is on his best behavior). And a lot of other things, too; when Tintin is focused on being an setpiece delivery system, it works really well; but unlike e.g. the Indiana Jones films, the bits in-between the setpieces are kind of bland and unpleasantly inhuman. Fortunately, the film seems to understand this and tries to overload on the action sequences, which itself becomes a little bit wearying.
But bitching and disappointments aside, this is a fun movie, if shallow. Spielberg's use of 3-D, while never revelatory, is sufficiently concerned with giving us spectacle for our dollars that it at least manages to be distractingly big to look at, the sense of humor is always in the right place even when the rest of it isn't, the acting is as agreeable as can be underneath the CGI, and John Williams's score - his first since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - is excellent, a pastiche of adventure movie music from several generations overlaid with a saucy European sensibility that keeps it from being a pleasant copy of the Indiana Jones music. It's more than good enough, and less than great, and that simply has to be that.
Have you helped Tim fight cancer? Donate to the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction! The fundraiser ends 18 June, 2015!