(by Dustin Putman
A pulp adventure done in the hair-raising style of a 1930s serial colliding with Indiana Jones, "The Adventures of Tintin" is a technically triumphant, if dramatically hollow, adaptation of the famed comic book series by Herge. Using performance-capture animation that could be confused for live-action on multiple occasions, director Steven Spielberg (2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") ensures that his characters haven't any of the dead-eyed qualities that some viewers once accused 2004's "The Polar Express" of. By positioning the film as sophisticated fare for older children of about nine and up—anyone younger will probably have trouble following the story and get antsy—the filmmaker and his screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), and Joe Cornish (2011's "Attack the Block") never feel the need to dumb things down or pander to a certain demographic. There is no bathroom humor, there are no pop-culture winks, and the pet sidekicks don't talk. Spielberg tells his tale cleanly and proficiently. The movie's problems are, in a way, the exact opposite of what the director is usually accused of; instead of dripping in sentimentality and feel-good schmaltz, this one is in desperate need of an emotional pick-me-up. Article continues below
Tintin (Jamie Bell) is an intrepid young journalist with a propensity for solving mysteries. His latest and potentially most dangerous arises when he decides to buy a scale model of an infamous 17th-century ship named the Unicorn. It's a hot item, but he can't quite figure out why until his flat is ransacked and the ship is stolen. Left behind, rolled up within a broken mast, is a scroll that Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), owner of a second connected scroll, desperately wants to help point him in the right direction of the Unicorn's hidden treasure. Eventually, Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy team up with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the descendant of the Unicorn's Captain Sir Francis, and head for the Moroccan city of Bagghar. It is here that the third and final scroll allegedly lurks, and they want to make sure Sakharine doesn't get his grubby hands anywhere near it.
A globe-trotting action pic that moves from European metropolis to the restless open seas to the arid desert to the Moroccan port town of Bagghar, "The Adventures of Tintin" is paced quickly, but not as chaotic as it may sound. If anything, director Steven Spielberg brings an oddly subdued feel to the proceedings, beginning with a cool, jazzy opening credits sequence done in the style of Saul Bass (come to think of it, it's not unlike 2002's "Catch Me If You Can") and then taking its time as the plot gradually unfolds and thickens. The look of the picture is the best part, however, the performance-capture technique coming as close as ever before in replicating the authentic movements of live-action actors and animals. Usually in animation and via computer-generated effects, motions are too smooth and artificial, but that's not the case so much this time. Based solely on appearance, the film is a hypnotic aesthetic feat with enough varied locations to never grow stale.
If individual set-pieces are on solid ground, none of them are more show-stopping than a chase in Bagghar to capture a bird that has the scrolls in its possession. Shot and edited with minimal cuts, it is a stunningly choreographed piece of artistry that reaches an almost poetic level of supremacy. This sequence, more than anything, is what audiences will be talking about. Besides just being a great scene, its popularity may also have to do with the human element of the tale—or lack thereof. Tintin appears to be a stand-up fellow worth rooting for, but nothing else is learned about him. He's a professional reporter, so it is logical to expect he is in his twenties, but he looks and is often treated as a kid younger than that. That he is never actually seen writing anything is an additionally irksome oversight. Other characters, from Captain Haddock to the shady Sakharine, to two mildly bumbling investigators named Thompson (Simon Pegg) and Thomson (Nick Frost), fulfill their requirements, but simply don't have much heart. It's difficult to relate to anyone deeper than on the surface when there doesn't appear to be anything beneath said outer layer.
If "The Adventures of Tintin" is not quite up to snuff with the genre it most apes—and no, it's not a match for the "Indiana Jones" series—at least it's a promising beginning to a planned trilogy (co-producer Peter Jackson plans to helm the second installment). Another film might help to enrich the lacking elements of this inaugural entry, and so there is plenty of welcome potential in expanding the story. The cliffhanger ending practically demands it, anyway. Stirring but slight, candy for the eyes if not the soul, "The Adventures of Tintin" has one thing going for itself: in tone and maturity-level, it's pretty much unlike any other so-called animated film released this year. The question, then, will be if the pre-teen (and older) audience goes for it amidst all the other flashier titles biding for attention this holiday season. One not-so-secret weapon in its arsenal: a guy named Spielberg.