The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
(for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)
Released: December 21, 2011
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Joe Starr
Whenever you adapt a classic character that no one has a particular affinity or nostalgia for, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it fails to catch on – even when you’re two of the most popular filmmakers in the world.
Intended to be the first of a trilogy, The Adventures of Tintin is based on one of the most popular European comic series of the 20th Century, running from pre-World War II and into the 1970s, by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi). Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (the King of Middle Earth), both looking to work in the realm of motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap), became producing partners to adapt Tintin into that format. Spielberg would direct the first film, Jackson the second, and they’d co-direct the third.
Oddly enough, Spielberg did not grow up on the comic series. In fact, the first he heard of it came through the European film reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Critics wrote that Tintin had clearly been a major influence on Spielberg, to which Spielberg wondered “What’s Tintin?” Suffice it to say, as a construct, Tintin is the kid equivalent of Indiana Jones, an intrepid and globetrotting teen news reporter who finds himself caught up in one daring scrape after another. Who better to adapt that for the screen than Steven Spielberg?
Yet shockingly, The Adventures of Tintin is one of the more boring action adventures you’ll ever sit through, despite coming from the ultimate purveyor of them. That has as much to do with the material as it does the format it’s told in. When everything is possible for a filmmaker, nothing seems impossible to the viewer. For an adventure story, that’s actually a buzzkill.
Nothing comes together in a script that tries to pull out all the stops, written by the most beloved British scribes working in film and television today: Steven Moffat (creative guru behind modern incarnations of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes) along with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (whose witty satirical spins on genre like Hot Fuzz and Attack The Block have engendered cult followings).
Part of the problem is how retrograde the material is, playing more like the kind of adventure that would’ve fascinated kids from generations past but not those of today’s. Even with the full force of modern technology, The Adventures of Tintin comes off as culturally archaic and antiquated.
There’s simply no appeal to this hero, his quest, the clues he’s following, the mystery he’s solving, the scoundrels he’s facing, or the sunken treasure he’s seeking. The only person who seems compelled to stay on this mission is Tintin himself, but not any of us being asked to go along with him.
The subplot tangents are silly distractions, too; a London pickpocket and the two hapless investigators on his trail are there for comic relief and fan service (for all you Tintin diehards out there), but within the context of this fairly dense yarn it’s just aimless and pointless. It’s not that the story isn’t well-written; it’s that you find yourself not caring what this plot machine produces.
All those issues considered, one has to wonder if the failure isn’t so much with the filmmakers as it is the specific medium of choice. To date, even following numerous attempts by high profile directors (Spielberg’s protégé Robert Zemeckis chief among them), no Mo-Cap animated feature has been a breakthrough success. The closest is Zemeckis’ first foray The Polar Express, but that has the goodwill of the Christmas spirit propping it up. At this point, filmmakers need to start conceding that there is an inherent problem with Mo-Cap animation that no director – regardless of how successful or populist – will ever be able to crack:
It’s kind of creepy.
Playing out like the animated version of stilted theme park animatronics, Mo-Cap characters – humans specifically – fall prey to the “dead eye” effect, where despite intentional focus and detail on every human nuance (including that “spark” behind the eyes), Mo-Cap humans never fail to come off as anything other than lifeless. They’re too real and not real enough.
Animals and other creatures don’t fair much better, as anatomical movement is too smooth and free-flowing and yet not credibly reactive, with the cause-and-effect of instinctive responses not quite capturing the true physics of movement within space and gravity. From small but telling reflexes to the actual physical effects of blunt forces opposing each other (a staple of action movies), Mo-Cap undercuts the very reality it strives to emulate.
Also, the Mo-Cap world allows too much freedom for a filmmaker. With a computer “camera” that’s completely unrestrained, classic cinematic visual language is lost. Even Spielberg’s instincts and hallmarks become muddled and neutered, and the simplest non-action sequences can be confusing. There’s simply too much steadicam-style whirring, gliding, swooping and swirling, the kind that no real camera could ever do in the real world.
A viewer may initially gawk at the spectacle of it all, but subconsciously the response is counter-productive because it makes the experience feel less real, not more. And then ironically, the viewer ends up feeling more detached from the experience, not submerged – which is the goal. Not even in 3D. Spielberg Oners also fail to impress (namely a 3-minute “one take” chase sequence through the streets, buildings, rooftops, and canals of the fictional Bagghar) because inherently they’re cheats.
Sure, they’re elaborate, high energy, and impressively designed (colorful and detailed, this is one amazing movie to look at), but only by design, not in execution. Problematically, we can’t be left breathless because we’re not wondering how they did that.
In the end, it just comes off as a series of big budget PreVis sequences and nothing more. One can’t help but wonder how much more exhilarating this same material could’ve been as a live action thrill ride.
The Adventures of Tintin is a story built entirely on a series of high stakes that can never shake the underlying truth – in both narrative and visual format – of how safe it all is. It’s an explosion of imagination that fails to capture ours.
- The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun is the title of what was to be Peter Jackson’s follow-up. It’s still listed as in development on IMDb, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
- This was the first non-Pixar movie to win the Best Animated Feature award at the Golden Globes.
- Spielberg enjoyed the freedom of the virtual camera so much that he did a lot of the camera work himself.
- Spielberg had initially intended to make his Tintin movie live action, but after a conversation with Peter Jackson about the visual effects needed, Jackson – a longtime Tintin fan – convinced Spielberg that the film needed to be Motion Capture. Spielberg found the argument so convincing that not only did he agree, but he brought Jackson onboard as his primary collaborator.
- Spielberg had been considering the property ever since he first discovered it during the press tour for Raiders. In 1984, he considered making it with Jack Nicholson as Captain Haddock (performed here by Mo-Cap legend Andy Serkis). Before Serkis was hired, Spielberg bestie Tom Hanks was also considered.
- This was the first animated film for Steven Spielberg, his first 3D movie, as well as his first PG rating since 1991’s Hook.
- Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the acting duo who co-starred in screenwriter Edgar Wright’s breakout action comedy Hot Fuzz, performed the bumbling twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (yes, spelled differently).