The big question about Steven Spielberg’s latest film “The Adventures of Tintin” is will it manage to strike a chord with American audiences who are oblivious to the character? Let’s face it, Tintin, the beloved intrepid reporter created by Belgian artist Herge, is famous across the Atlantic, but not many here in the States know of him. I wasn’t even aware of him before this collaboration between Spielberg and Peter Jackson was announced, and even though I’ve read a bit of the comics since, I wouldn’t exactly say that I was up on the whole Tintin phenomenon when the lights dimmed. However, the thing is, he should catch on, because “The Adventures of Tintin” is an compelling adventure yarn that anyone can have a good time watching, whether you know anything about him or not.
In keeping with adventure film tradition, the plot is very simple, as are the motivations of the characters getting caught up in it. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a young reporter famous for all of the dangerous cases he has solved and reported on. He has a bit of a penchant for coming across stories that carry a lot of risky baggage, but he doesn’t exactly fall into them so much as eagerly seek them out. This time he stumbles across a mysterious model ship that everyone seems to want, some so badly that they are willing to kill for it. Of course, he is unable to resist such a mystery and, along with his dog pal Snowy, sets off to find the story behind it. This puts him at odds with the sinister Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who kidnaps Tintin and locks him away with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a boozing sea captain who seems to be right at the center of the mystery. Sakharine wants to solve the mystery for nefarious ends, Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock must stop him. That’s it.
And that’s all you need really, such a set-up is more than enough to launch our heroes into an exciting adventure that extends across turbulent seas, into blistering deserts, and even on an absolutely thrilling chase through a crowed city. There really are some incredible set pieces spread throughout the film. While some of them do seem a tad unbelievable for their own good, they never fail to thrill. Thus it’s impossible to avoid the comparison between Tintin and Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones pictures. The situations and villains Tintin and Haddock find themselves up against hearken back wonderfully to the series, matching all of its excitement and humor. I really don’t think anyone but Spielberg could have captured such an incredible sense of adventure as perfectly as he does here.
I also love that the film isn’t afraid to shy away from violence. People get shot at, people get killed, and everyone is always at risk of meeting a sticky end. Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t too violent for a family friendly adventure, but the fact that it isn’t afraid of straight up murdering characters really conveys what is actually act stake along with making the bad guys feel threatening. Tintin himself never kills anyone, choosing to scare bad guys with an empty gun or just shoot things around him in an effort to stop them, so parents shouldn’t worry about him being a bad role model or anything. His journey may feel like an Indy film, but here our hero isn’t a cold blooded killer who has no qualms about shooting the thugs trying to stop him. Still, it’s nice to have a family film like this that actually feels dangerous instead of going to great lengths at making sure the kids know that no one is getting hurt.
Unfortunately, it’s all slightly marred by the decision to motion capture the actors and turn them into realistic animated caricatures. Don’t get me wrong, the animation is stunning; however, in trying to strike a balance between Herge’s art and real life, it can be very off-putting at times. Spielberg never really steps into uncanny valley, something just isn’t quite right about them. Because of this, you are rarely able to connect with the characters or fear for them when they are in peril. I was having a good time and never found myself bored during the film, but the whole time something just felt off and lets face the elephant in the room, it’s the animation. You could easily argue that instead of trying to find a middle ground, either making it completely animated or completely live action would have made this a better film.
One thing I can say, though, is that the actors are not to blame. They all do a fine job at capturing the spirit of their characters, or at least, they seem to to someone who has a limited understanding of the source material. Jamie Bell is incredibly spirited as Tintin, there is something in the tone of his voice that just screams adventure. Serkis is just as wonderful as Haddock, though this should come as no surprise as he is such a natural at making animated characters work. His performance is easily the funniest, with most of the gags involving him stemming from Haddock’s alcoholism, which gets him in trouble about as often as Tintin’s love of deadly mysteries. However, Serkis also manages to inject a fire into the character that’s burning just beneath the surface and it’s satisfying to see this play out.
The most surprising performance comes from Craig as Sakharine. He really vanishes into the part, bringing to the character an old fashioned menace that really fits in with a yarn such as this. It’s also worth mentioning the brief appearances of Thomson and Thompson, portrayed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, respectively. The bumbling detective duo don’t get a lot of screen time, but I can’t think of anyone who could have played them better, mainly because of the real life chemistry Frost and Pegg possess that can’t be faked. It’s also worth noting that their dialog feels most like the contribution longtime collaborator Edgar Wright made to the script. Expect to laugh loud whenever they are on screen.
Spielberg captures all of this with his trademark eye for making all of his shots feel exciting without resorting to shaky cam or out of focus nonsense. No, the action here is always clearly focused and the shots are frequently awe inspiring or laced with dread, depending on what the scene calls for. Spielberg still knows what he is doing and knows how to make his shots work with the film instead of merely capturing it. John Williams is just as much of a Spielberg trademark and his score is precisely what you’d expect from the man. It’s loud and adventurous without getting in the way while occasionally enhancing the big action scenes. Yep, just like every other John Williams score for Spielberg as of late.
So, what am I trying to get at here? Well, “The Adventures of Tintin” is a pretty damn good film; one that only stumbles with the choice to make it a motion captured one. Had the film been traditionally animated, completely animated by computer, or just straight up live action, it probably would have made more of an impression on me. However, I want to reiterate, it didn’t come close to making a bad one on me, either. Though, again, I’m partly ignorant of this whole Tintin thing, I have a feeling that most people who are huge fans of the source material will find a lot to love here, as you can’t deny its charm or the enthralling sense of intrigue and adventure that every moment of the film manages to exhibit. The same is true for those who have no idea who the hell Tintin is, so much so that you’ll probably be a fan the minute the credits roll.
FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):