Saturday, January 21, 2012

You were so awesome. You were like Rin Tin Tin -- The Adventures of Tintin

Longtime readers of Diversion 2.0 (I feel like there must be at least three of you at this point) know my affinity for adventure media—films, video games, whatever; if it reminds me of a Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comic book, chances are I’m going to like it an awful lot. It’s with this mindset that I bring up The Adventures of Tintin, a motion-capture film version of Belgian artist HergĂ©’s famous newspaper comic strips, which, to my understanding, are to European audiences what Uncle Scrooge is to me. Produced by Peter Jackson and helmed by Stephen Spielberg (a man who knows a thing or three about putting together an adventure film), Tintin is swashbuckling and satisfying popcorn cinema, and if it’s not as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s at least as fun as Romancing the Stone.

The Adventures of Tintin is based on three volumes of HergĂ©’s work, and follows Tintin (Jaime Bell), a newspaper reporter with a penchant for finding hidden treasure, as he attempts to discover the secrets of a model ship with the figurehead of a unicorn. Along the way, he meets Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a boozy, blustery seaman with at least three catchphrases to his name (“Blustering barnacles!”), and the slinky, sinister Mr. Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin and Haddock’s travels take them from France, to Morocco, to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, though, disappointingly, there’s not a single sequence involving an old parchment map or a traveling red line.

Tintin and Haddock manage to get both into and out of several scrapes along the course of the film.

Motion capture animation, made popular by films like The Polar Express and Disney’s A Christmas Carol, has received a healthy amount of flak from audiences, mostly for the off-putting, Uncanny Valley appearances of its characters. I was concerned that I would spend most of Tintin distracted by its animation style, but after I got over the initial shock of the characters’ realistic proportions and cartoon faces, I was amazed by how good the film looked, and how fluid the action was. Far from an unnecessary stylistic flourish, Tintin’s animation gives way to fantastic, larger-than-life stunts and setpieces, like a harrowing motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city in pursuit of a falcon, or a kinetic, rain-swept duel between two enormous ships.

And how wonderful the set pieces are! Far from simply shooting them and cutting together the footage, Spielberg takes the freedom brought by animation and uses it to swoop in and out of the background, following characters as they leap, slide and run through the environment, all without a single break in the action. If Tintin succeeds on any level (and it does on numerous ones, I should think), it’s in the movie’s heedless, joyous celebration of movement and spectacle.

During many of Tintin's setpieces, the camera darts in and out of the action, which I rather enjoyed.

Tintin’s acting performances are solid throughout. I’m unfamiliar with Jaime Bell’s work, but I enjoyed his portrayal of the titular character, doing his best to power through the character’s inherent hollow writing. Craig is wonderful as the menacing Sakharine, to the point that I didn’t even know it was Craig until I watched the credits. The real show-stopper, though, is Serkis, who puts his motion capture experience from Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to good use, imbuing Captain Haddock with boisterous energy and personality, not to mention a ruddy good Scottish brogue. Helping round out Tintin’s audio package is a rousing score from composer John Williams, who uses his old-fashioned matinee sensibilities to great effect, while sprinkling in Middle Eastern motifs and playful jazz-era sounds reminiscent of his work in Catch Me If You Can.

For all its does right, though, Tintin doesn’t escape without a few blemishes. As I mentioned earlier, Tintin as a character has few distinguishing qualities, and while I get that he’s meant to be an audience cypher, he still feels quite dull onscreen. As a result, many of the character development scenes fall flat, especially early in the movie before the introduction of Captain Haddock. Also, while I was able to push past Tintin’s use of motion capture, I realize that some might still be weirded out by overall aesthetic of the characters, though I will say that Tintin looks miles ahead of other motion capture films I’ve seen.

Many characters sport bulbous noses and other exaggerated facial features, which clash a bit with their smooth, normal-looking movements.

Then there’s the matter of Captain Haddock, a character whose primary trait, apart from being a sea captain and a Scot, is his rampant alcoholism. Usually, it’s played to comic relief, such as when Tintin elaborately steals a key from a quarter of sleeping sailors, only to find out the key unlocks the ship’s liquor cabinet; or when Haddock’s foul, fermented breath is able to keep an airplane running midflight. At other times, Tintin gives Haddock grief about his constant drinking, in a darker, Rather Serious manner, making Haddock’s later scenes of comic drinking all the more surreal. Tintin’s treatment of Haddock’s alcoholism, ironically, is like that of a drunkard, weaving back and forth between hilarity and pathos. W.C. Fields, this film ain’t.

Still, for the couple knocks against it I have, I still enjoyed the heck out of Tintin. Even without having read a Tintin comic book, the movie still drove home a sense of adventure and excitement like few other films from recent years. The movie ends with the promise of a sequel, and I’ll be hotly anticipating Tintin’s further adventures.