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 feels a particular nostalgia for, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when it fails to catch on. That holds true 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. Created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (the pen name of Georges Remi), it ran from pre-World War II and into the 1970s.
Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (the King of Middle Earth) had been separately looking to work in the realm of motion capture animation (a.k.a. Mo-Cap). Spielberg had been wanting to make a Tintin movie for decades as well.
Once Jackson convinced him that mo-cap was the format for this property, Spielberg invited Jackson to be his producing partner on a Tintin trilogy. Spielberg would direct the first film, Jackson the second, and then together they would co-direct the third.
During the European press tour for Raiders of the Lost Ark, film reporters observed that Tintin had clearly been a major influence on Spielberg. Spielberg’s response to that: “What’s Tintin?” Not only had Spielberg not grown up on the comic series; he’d never even heard of it.
But it’s natural for critics to assume that he did. 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?
Shockingly, he wasn’t. Not in this format, anyway.
The Adventures of Tintin is one of the most 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 with the format it’s told in. The main problem? Mo-Cap animation provides too much liberty. When everything is possible for a filmmaker, nothing seems impossible to the viewer. For an adventure story, that’s a real buzzkill.
It’s not like Spielberg had hired hack screenwriters. If anything, he scored a coup by enlisting Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (who collaborated on Hot Fuzz and Attack The Block, and Wright later on Scott Pilgrim and Baby Driver). Joining them was Steven Moffat, the creator behind the modern TV productions of Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.
And yet, nothing comes together in a script that tries to pull out all the stops.
Part of the problem is how retrograde the material is, playing more like the kind of adventure that would’ve fascinated kids from generations ago but not to kids of today. 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 the hero, his quest, or the clues he’s following. There’s little intrigue to the mystery he’s trying to solve, 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 (voiced by Jamie Bell), but us? Not so much.
The subplot tangents are silly distractions, too. For example, the comic relief: namely, a London pickpocket and the two hapless investigators on his trail. These characters exist for fan service but little else, and appeasing Tintin diehards (do you know any?) seems aimless and pointless for this fairly dense story.
It’s not that the script isn’t well-written, it’s just that you find yourself not caring about what this plot machine produces.
And yet even with those issues considered, one still has to wonder if the failure isn’t so much with the filmmakers and screenwriters as it is the specific medium of choice.
To date, no Mo-Cap animated feature has been a breakthrough success. That’s true, despite numerous attempts by high profile directors to make it so; Spielberg’s protégé Robert Zemeckis is chief among them. The closest Zemeckis’ came to one was with his first foray The Polar Express, but once you get past the Holiday season goodwill it coasts on, there’s really not a lot of affection for it.
At this point, filmmakers need to start conceding that there is an inherent problem with Mo-Cap animation, one that no director — regardless of how successful or populist they may be — will ever be able to crack. That problem is this:
Mo-Cap is kind of creepy.
Playing out like the animated version of stilted theme park animatronics, Mo-Cap characters (and humans especially) fall prey to the “dead eye” effect, a.k.a. the Uncanny Valley.
Despite a deliberate, intentional focus to bring detail to every human expression and nuance, Mo-Cap humans never come off as anything other than lifeless. It’s like they’re too real and not real enough all at the same time.
Animals and other creatures don’t fair much better. Anatomical movement is excessively smooth and free-flowing, not credibly reactive, nor does it seem to adhere to the restrictions of physics within space and gravity. 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. Here, Spielberg’s instincts and hallmarks actually become muddled, even 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. Deep down, we perceive the experience to be less real, not more.
The intent of motion capture (especially in 3D) is to submerge the audience into the action. But ironically, the viewer ends up feeling more detached from the experience in mo-cap. Even in 3D.
Spielberg Oners also fail to impress in this format because, inherently, they are cheats. Tracking a 3-minute, unbroken “single take” chase sequence through the fictional city of Bagghar — through its streets, buildings, rooftops, and canals — may sound impressive but it’s not. Why? Because it’s all so obviously fake, in part because of how mo-cap tries and fails to create an appearance of reality.
Sure, these set pieces are elaborate, colorful and detailed, fueled by high energy. Impressively designed, this is one amazing movie to look at — but only by design, not in execution.
Simply put, we’re never left breathless because we never wonder how they did that.
One can’t help but wonder how much more exhilarating this same material could’ve been as a live action thrill ride. But in the end, it just comes off as a series of big budget PreVis sequences and nothing more.
The Adventures of Tintin is a story built entirely on a series of high stakes, with one peril after another, and yet one can’t shake the fact of how safe it all is. It’s an explosion of imagination that fails to capture ours.
- Peter Jackson was supposed to direct the sequel to Spielberg’s movie, but due to lack of box office and audience demand it never came to be. It was going to be titled The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun. It’s still listed as “in development” on IMDb for several years, but no longer is.
- This was the first non-Pixar movie to win the Best Animated Feature award at the Golden Globes.
- Spielberg enjoyed the freedom of motion capture’s virtual camera so much that he did a lot of the camera work himself.
- Spielberg initially intended to make his Tintin movie as live action, not animated, but after a conversation with Peter Jackson about the visual effects that would be 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 to be 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 as live action 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.
- The Adventures of Tintin marked a few firsts for Spielberg
- It was his first animated film
- It was his first 3D movie
- It was his first PG rated film in 20 years (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).