A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2011

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN:

SECRET OF THE UNICORN  jj
½ 

2011, PG, 107 mins.

 

Tintin: Jamie Bell / Capt. Haddock: Andy Serkis / Sakharine: Daniel Craig / Thomson: Nick Frost / Thompson: Simon Pegg / Silk: Toby Jones

Directed by Steven Spielberg / Written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin” by Hergé.

SCREENED IN
3D

On paper – and to quote its full and official title – THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: SECRET OF THE UNICORN has it all.   

We have Steven Spielberg as director, Peter Jackson as Producer, Weta Digital providing the computer animation, John Williams lending his hands for its musical score, and, most crucially, we have them all working together to bring Belgian artist Georges Remi’s (under the pen name Herge) iconic European comic book to the silver screen.  Tintin may not be an institution in North America, but it was one of the most prevalent comics in Europe of the 20th Century since its first publication in 1929.  More than 200 million copies of Tintin comics have been sold to date.  That's kind of astounding. 

To their credit, Spielberg and company have more than faithfully captured the tone and spirit of Herge’s original works.  The comics always traversed fluidly through a variety of different genres, from fantasy, murder mystery, political thrillers, science fiction, and even sea-faring swashbuckling adventures.  It’s of no surprise why Spielberg was attracted to Tintin, seeing as the source material and film bare more than a fleeting resemblance to his own Indiana Jones Quadrilogy.  THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN has a perpetual level of innocent and wholesome enthusiasm about it, not to mention that it’s in the grand tradition of the Saturday afternoon adventure serials that inspired Spielberg in his youth.  TINTIN, much like its graphic novel counterpart, washes itself of cynicism and evokes a contagiously lively and light-hearted vibe throughout. 

Where the film falls short, though, is in its overall storyline and character development.  At nearly two hours – quite long for most CGI animated efforts – there’s not much in the way of an overreaching plot to be had in TINTIN, outside of a central mystery to be solved and the location of an obligatory treasure to be discovered by its intrepid heroes.  Then there’s the main protagonist himself, who’s only thinly and enigmatically defined in the film.  Tintin has the intelligence, physical dexterity and strength of an adult, but has the wide-eyed inquisitiveness, appearance and voice of a young adolescent.  He works as a globe-trotting journalist solving cases all over the world and has become a legend in his field, despite, however, looking like he’s about to make his first step into a junior high school.  This is a film character ingrained with a personality, to be sure, but we really don’t ever learn much about him. 

Nonetheless, Tintin remains a likeable and enthusiastic creation, and the film deals with his exploits to uncover a centuries-old mystery that sees him traveling to various corners of the world.  Along for the ride are his never-endingly faithful – and smarter than many of the other human characters – white dog Snowy, who actually occupies many of the film’s more amusing moments.  There are many instances when the people around this adorable little canine seem confused and disoriented as to what to do next, that is until Snowy puts them all to shame by wisely pointing out the way that was in front of them the whole time. 

 

Herge's comic Tintin Spielberg's CGI Tintin
 

The film has a terrific opening: Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) and Snowy are touring a small outdoor market in a European town when he becomes attracted to a model of a three masted sailing ship, The Unicorn, and buys it.  He is then immediately confronted by a sinister man named Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who tries to forcibly take the model away from the young journalist, who steadfastly refuses to sell it.  After he takes the ship home, Tintin finds hidden within the model a parchment scroll, which peaks his already insatiable curiosity about…everything.  It appears that the scroll is but one piece out of three required to locate a lost treasure.  This allows Tintin to have a chance meeting with the nearly always drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) who is actually one of the ancestors of the original ship’s Captain.  Unfortunately, the pair realizes that the nefarious Sakharine has another vital piece of the puzzle to the treasure’s location, so it becomes a race to locate and secure the third and final clue required to find it.   

TINTIN marks the very first time that Spielberg has ever made an animated film and worked with 3D.  As for the latter, Spielberg – like Martin Scorsese did recently with HUGO – astutely understands that utilizing three-dimensional techniques works best for subtly conveying depth within the frame and not assaulting viewers with visual gimmicks: it’s satisfyingly restrained and pleasing on the eyes…and head.  As for the animation itself, Spielberg opted to use the same motion capture techniques utilized in films as far ranging as THE POLAR EXPRESS and AVATAR to capture Herge’s comic universe.  The level of clarity, minute detail, and overall craftsmanship on display here is extraordinary: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is, quite simply, one of the most sumptuously realized and executed CGI motion-captured animated films ever.   

 

 

Here’s my problem, though, with the film’s grandiose and exquisitely rendered artifice: Herge’s comics simply employed what is known as “ligne claire”, or a clean line approach to the drawings with little, if any, shading.  The Tintin comics were purposely minimalist, which gave them their inherent charm.  Spielberg’s 21st Century computer rendered upgrade of Herge’s creations captures the cartoony essence of all of the characters (they’re exaggerated in terms of proportions, but rendered with palpably realistic textures), aside from Tintin, as he looks more or less like a real human.   

Yet, what Spielberg et al fail to grasp here, I think, is that the microscopic level of crispness and depth in the film’s animation almost seems disingenuous to Herge’s original artistic aims.  Tintin was a two-dimensionally envisioned hero that almost seems out of place in this film’s three-dimensional world.  I’ve seen some of the original animation from the TINTIN TV cartoon, which despite being vastly more rudimentary and crude than what’s presented here in the film, has almost more expressivity.  Just consider the film’s joyously animated opening title card sequence, which employs bits of the film’s storyline presented in Herge’s quaint and retro-animation style (and accompanied by the spontaneously jazzy and colorful musical cords by John Williams).  Just image if the rest of the film followed that aesthetic.  See what I mean? 

Yes, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN has astounding visual flourishes that will stick with me: the film is a masterpiece of technical craft and innovation.  The voice actors are uniformly well assembled too: Jamie Bell captures Tintin’s eager gumption rather well; Daniel Craig is almost unrecognizable as his dastardly villain; ditto for Andy Serkis as the rarely clear-headed Haddock; and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a field day portraying Thompson and Thompson, two Interpol agents that are spectacularly stupid and clumsy.  How they secured jobs at Interpol is beyond me.  As for Snowy?  Well…he steals most of the film from the other human personas. 

Yet, I guess that I just wished that Spielberg was more invested in the story and characters and less on spectacle and mayhem.  There are times when he seems too preoccupied with providing one large scale, booming, and ostentatious action sequence after another that revels in exhaustive showmanship first and tension and intrigue a distant second.  Look, for instance, at an elaborately staged motorcycle chase through the streets of a Moroccan city, done largely with unbroken shots.  The craft here is impeccable, to be sure, but where is the excitement and tension?  Too many sequences like this one in the film are not so much rousing and inspired as they are anaesthetizing on the audience.   I left TINTIN feeling bombarded, but not thoroughly entertained: the screen just seems too jammed with busy action and not much more at times. 

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is less a self-professed labor of love for Spielberg than it is a curiosity and experimental piece for the legendary populist director.  He unequivocally proves that he can conjure up a flamboyantly flashy parade of CGI visual trickery, but now that he has it’s time for him to move on to something more substantial.  THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN has the feel of a good ol’ fashioned adventure yarn and harkens back to the infectiously innocuous spirit of Herge’s original comic book panels.  Yet, too much of TINTIN is submerged in relentless boisterousness and can’t seem to find a way to settle down and immerse viewers in its story.  The technical mastery is all here in abundance, but what’s curiously lacking – especially for the man that made INDIANA JONES, JAWS, E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and so on – is a bit of the ol’ Spielbergian magic.  I don't even think that Snowy would be able to sniff it out here.

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