Thursday, December 22, 2011

Good Old-Fashioned Derring-do: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

With The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest and most popular filmmakers working today, is experimenting with the most modern of filmmaking tools. Consequentially the film has the creak of an accomplished professional trying to adapt his style to a new format. Luckily for us the results are a film that is not an uninteresting exercise but a playful and fluid adventure film that’s as charming and low-key as it is fun and visually stimulating. Working with performance-capture techniques for computer animation, Spielberg can send his camera any which way he wants it to go and send his characters into any dangerous situation he wants. Luckily, he has some solid material to guide his way.

Intrepid boy reporter Tintin first appeared in the comics of HergĂ© in 1929 and has endured in some areas of the world, mostly Europe and parts of Asia, as a recognizable and beloved figure. Spielberg’s film has a script from three of the best and cleverest screenwriters working today, Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, that sticks close to the original conception of the character as a blank goody-two-shoes who happens to be clever and resourceful in getting out of the scrapes that his curiosity gets him into. The film starts with Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy buying a model ship from a street vendor, a simple act that soon grows in consequence. He doesn’t know it at first. He’s simply perplexed as to why his little impulse buy is met with such urgency from such mysterious sources.

It turns out that the ship is not a model of just any ship. No, it’s the Unicorn, a ship that legendarily sunk with hundreds of pounds of treasure in the cargo hold. It turns out that a wealthy man, the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), will spare no expense to get his hands on the model for hidden within it lies a clue that will lead to the real thing. There, at the bottom of the ocean, lie vast piles of treasure. So, it’s a deadly intercontinental race, then. But first, Tintin is kidnapped and placed aboard a ship mid-mutiny where he’s forced to help Sakharine find the treasure. He’d rather not, so he flees with the ship’s embattled drunkard captain, Haddock (Andy Serkis), to beat them to it.

The set up here is terrific. There’s a nice mystery to solve and a fun MacGuffin for these characters to fight over. The plot, though I’ve made it sound so simple, also involves a murdered American, a centuries-old conflict between warring pirates and their descendants, a pickpocket, two bumbling bobbies (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), an opera diva touring a Middle Eastern country, and circuitous action sequences involving boats, planes, and automobiles that comes to a head in one great rip-roaring chase of death-defying destruction through a crumbling and flooding sea-side town. (There’s more movie after that chase, but it is unquestionable the high point of the spectacle). It’s the stuff B-movie matinees are made of.

The movie’s essentially a case of this happens and then this happens and then this happens, a galloping plot that sweeps across several serialized episodes of adventure and thrills with characters stumbling into cliffhangers and then solving them with ease. Spielberg digs back into the same place within himself where he stores the kind of uncomplicated B-movie energy of something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that film’s warm, propulsive and tactile (not to mention quite possibly the best action film ever made) while Tintin is cool, level, and smooth (and not the best action film ever made). It’s a film with visual play and skillful slapstick choreography animating its computerized soul but it never feels like real human stakes are in play. The cliffhanger method of storytelling works like gangbusters but leaves things up in the air. It doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion any more than these new renderings of 2D comics characters ever really feel like fully fleshed movie characters. Still, though, the film’s comfortable wit, bright colors, and energetic staging make it more than acceptable entertainment.

Spielberg has made his first animated movie with the verve of an old master doodling around just for the fun of it. He concocts sequences, especially that aforementioned chase, that would be logistical nightmares to direct in live action. His imagery has a range of movement that is at once freeing and problematic. In some ways, it leaves him rudderless, too tied to the technology to fully exercise his control over the technique. At times it feels less a Spielberg film than a Spielberg product. It lacks the power and humanity of his best efforts.

But then again, I’m really only trying to put my finger on what it was that kept me ever so slightly from fully embracing a film that’s so lovely, well-crafted, and entertaining. The fact of the matter is that this is a fun movie. It’s pleasant and funny and every so often takes giddy leaps into exciting action. Just as its plot engine of constant forward movement, always pushing into the next complication and smashing into the next cliffhanger, creates a series of fun sequences that lack a satisfying resolution, the film's very distinctiveness – so old fashioned, so relaxed, so European, and yet so cutting-edge Hollywood with its CGI and 3D – is both its greatest flaw and greatest asset.

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