REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin Putt-Putts Along with a Terrier in Tow
There are times when too much of a good thing and not enough meet halfway and settle into a comfortable middle ground. That's the case with Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, which would be better if it had been made using more traditional animation techniques rather than that performance-capture nonsense and if 3-D weren't one of its big selling points.
But halfway is still something, and The Adventures of Tintin is winning in a rousing, let's-hunt-down-a-treasure way, once you get past -- if you can -- the Polar Express-style creepiness of animated figures who gaze through human-looking eyes. The picture is adapted from the graphic novels of Hergé, the pen name of Belgian writer and illustrator Georges Remi (the pronunciation is a playful reversal of his initials), which trace the adventures of a ginger-haired cub reporter and, perhaps just as importantly, the wriggly-butt high jinks of his fox terrier, Snowy. Part of the appeal of the books, the first of which appeared in 1929, are their lo-fi visual clarity: Hergé rendered his images in clear yet soft colors bordered by fine but distinct black outlines, a comic-book drawing style that later came to be known as ligne claire. The drawing in Tintin comics is flat, but pleasingly so -- there's plenty of dimensionality in the attendant details Hergé clearly took pleasure in adding (the drape of a cloth overcoat, the soft wrinkle of a sock) and in the sense of movement and excitement carried over from frame to frame. In a Tintin comic, Snowy's tail is never still -- you never literally see it move, but you just know.
Visually, The Adventures of Tintin isn't all that ligne claire: Instead, it's dimensional and rounded and shaded -- even more so than a movie designed to be watched only in 2-D would be. This is Spielberg's first foray into 3-D, and he goes all out to prove he can do it. But so what? The things that make Tintin enjoyable have less to do with that kind of technical prowess than with Spielberg's affection for the source material and his obsessive eye for detail. (He and Peter Jackson, co-producers of the film, are both lifelong Tintin fans.) I started out hating Tintin -- I don't care how technically smooth the performance-capture animation is; anything made using this hyperrealistic technique is just begging to be held at arm's length. But once I got over that Rosemary's Baby, "What have you done to his eyes?" feeling, and relaxed into what is essentially a cheerful (if a bit manic) feat of storytelling, Tintin became a lot more fun.
The story here -- adapted from an assortment of Hergé tales by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish -- kicks off when Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) purchases a model ship with an important secret tucked inside. He knows it's important because nefarious villain Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) wants it, too. In the process of unlocking that secret, Tintin and Snowy find themselves on a hijacked sea freighter, where they meet Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a boozy old seadog who, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to Walter Matthau. Together they set off an on adventure that takes them across the ocean (with its billowing, rolling waves) and the desert (where those liquid waves are exchanged for rippling hills of sand). Snowy tags along every step of the way, either helping out or acting up, and sometimes both.
Tintin's plot is constructed of minor scrapes and narrowly avoided disasters, and it scampers from land to sea to desert to city with an abandon that only seems reckless: Everything in The Adventures of Tintin is meticulous -- this is a Steven Spielberg movie, after all. But it's fun to take in all the movie's details, especially if you have even a passing familiarity with the Tintin books: The way Tintin's camel-colored coat has the kind of hand-stitching a European coat of the '30s would have; the soft glow of a green-shaded desk lamp illuminating a book spread out on a table; the gentle "tik-tik" sound made by Snowy's toenails as he trots along. And the wry humor of the books emerges intact: An obsessive wallet-stealer moans, "I'm not a bad person. I'm a kleptomaniac!" The squabbling twin inspectors Thomson and Thompson, with their scrubbing-brush mustaches and bowler hats, also make several appearances, their voices provided by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.
In some ways The Adventures of Tintin is too perfectly perfect. Spielberg and his team have scrutinized the way Hergé moved the action from panel to panel and replicated it with utmost precision. It's great as far as it goes. But the movie fairly vibrates with that showing-off quality that Spielberg just can't shake. Still, Tintin musters a great deal of likable energy -- John Williams' jaunty score, in particular, is just the sort of soundtrack you'd want to have following you around if you were a red-headed adventurer in tweed plus-fours, rooting around for secret treasure. But it's Snowy who really won my heart: Delighted by the aroma of a sandwich or encountering a camel for the first time, he's everything you'd want a cartoon terrier to be. His pursuits are passionate, but his demeanor is casual. He's the one thing in The Adventures of Tintin that's never trying too hard.
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