Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin has so many jaw-dropping moments of visual splendor that it takes a while to realize that there’s really nothing much of interest here except the jaw-dropping visual splendor.
Employing the motion-capture animation techniques employed in films like The Polar Express, this screen adaptation of the late Hergé’s universally popular comic book hero should please long-time fans. But will it win new converts to the Tintin brand?
Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott fame) is a perpetually boyish, carrot-topped newspaper reporter who goes nowhere without a tan trench coat, brown knickers, and a white pooch named Snowy.
He’s sort of like a junior Sherlock Holmes who’s always up to his neck in one mystery or another.
Almost immediately others try to buy or steal Tintin’s new acquisition; among them a suave-but-menacing professorial type named Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig).
The model boat comes from the now-decaying ancestral home of the Haddock family, whose seagoing founder back in the pirate era gained (then lost) a huge treasure in gold, silver, and precious jewels. It dawns on Tintin that the model holds some sort of clue, as do two other model ships.
The trail leads Tintin out to sea, to the North African desert, and finally to an Arabian port, accompanied by Captain Haddock, the original seafarer’s seriously alcoholic descendent (Andy Serkis...who was Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the main chimp in last summer’s Planet of the Apes prequel).
Tintin is remarkably faithful to the comic books, from the surprisingly sophisticated dialogue, complex (if not incomprensible) plotting, matter-of-fact approach to murder and pre-politically correct attitudes (Captain Haddock’s drunkenness is played for laughs...his memory and higher faculties only function when he’s thoroughly lubricated).
While there are some moderately diverting characters here (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are amusing as a pair of bumbling Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum Interpol agents), no character, not even Tintin, is all that exciting.
But Spielberg delivers one astounding visual sequence after another, including a chase through the narrow streets of a seaside town so convincing you’d swear you can feel the breeze and smell the salt air.
Whatever its faults as storytelling, Tintin finds the right balance between cartoonishness and realism. The film’s backgrounds and settings (the setting seems to be the 1930s or ‘40s) are photo-realistic and utterly convincing in every detail.
The characters, on the other hand, are slightly exaggerated — outsized features, bizarre hair — and this very exaggeration, curiously enough, makes them more believable.
Attempts to create totally convincing, lifelike animated humans have largely been a bust (it’s been called “dead eye syndrome”). Spielberg and his artists take a hint from the Disney/Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol, making the characters just cartoonish enough that we don’t get caught up in the fine line between live-action and super-realistic animation.
But don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking at your watch. Beyond the eye candy there’s not much to cling to here.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.