Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

Mrs. Speculator and I were able to get out to the local movies again this week (twice in two weeks—what's up with that?), and so we went to see a movie she had been pining for since she first heard about it: The Adventures of Tintin. What attracted her was not so much the storyline, of which she honestly knew nothing, but the names associated with the crew—directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright (or as I like to think of it, Sherlock meets Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)—are a veritable who's who adventure movie-making. With that kind of firepower, what could possibly go wrong with the movie?

I'm happy to report that nothing did. The Adventures of Tintin is a fine action movie that's good for the whole family. Fortunately for American audiences, you don't need to know much about Tintin and his adventures to enjoy the movie, and the background is delivered without too much exposition as a part of the main plot and in background scenes, so that a relatively attentive audience member can work it out. Young kids who care may need to have a few details spelled out to them, but they probably are not there so much for the plot as they are the whiz bang effects, the occasional humor, and all the action sequences.

Tintin is a boy reporter of indeterminate age, who according to his press clippings travels around the world on strange adventures, a la an adolescent Indiana Jones, and Snowy is his canine companion. At an outdoor market, Tintin buys a model of a three-masted sailing ship, the Unicorn and has to fend of other buyers trying to buy it from him. Curious about the interest in the Unicorn, Tintin goes to a local naval library to do research, then returns home to find his rooms ransacked and the model missing. Thus he and Snowy are drawn into the legend of the Unicorn, its captain Sir Francis Haddock, and the treasure that was lost at sea when the Unicorn was sunk. His investigations eventually lead him to Captain Archibald Haddock, the sole remaining heir to the earlier captain, and together they try to solve the mystery of why someone would go to so much trouble to steal the model.

Along the way there are innumerable chase scenes and fight sequences, all created with the latest 3D technology and filmed using motion capture. The end result is an often incredibly lifelike animation with a flair for quantity of effects, rather than quality. This is not to say that the effects are not good; instead, The Adventures of Tintin are about the really big picture (as one would expect of a film about a globe-hopping adventurer) rather than the tiny details of a personal film like Kung Fu Panda, where every hair is given lifelike movement. Individual hairs do not move on Tintin (or Snowy's) head, nor do they need to—they are not often in close-up and so do not require that effect. But the scenes are lavish and lovely: the chase scene in Bhaggar is breathtaking for all of its twists and turns, not only of direction but in progress toward the purpose of the chase in the first place. The most terrific scenes regard flashbacks to a sea battle between the Unicorn and a pirate ship, both on fire and with their masts tangled as they circle one another in a heavy sea.

And yet strangely, The Adventures of Tintin feels more understated than the best of the action-adventure movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think this difference comes from two sources: first, John Williams's score is not as bombastic as is most often used in the adventure movie genre. Again, this is not a complaint but rather a detail I noticed as I watched and listened. Second, the movie never quite lets you escape from the notion that it is animation, thus never quite able to leverage the idea that the characters are actually in danger. It's unfortunate too, because so much of the animation is very lifelike, especially the settings, but so many of the characters look not quite right that you cannot get immersed. This is not a function of the uncanny valley, but instead a reliance on the part of the filmmakers to stick close to the caricatures of people that Herge used as he wrote and drew the Tintin stories, such that Haddock looks inhuman next to Sakharin. And the Thompson Twins look like iconic stereotypes of British buffoonery beside the realistically drawn Tintin. It's an interesting decision that is not distracting, just a subconscious impediment to complete immersion.

The other technology, the 3D, is of dubious value. For most of the film, it is used much like in Avatar without calling attention to itself but to literally add depth to the scenes. But at one point, it gets abused, like the very worst of 3D movies, with objects being poked out of the screen at the audience, as if to show the viewer why they were forced to pay extra to rent the glasses. The best use of the 3D is how objects were used to act as transitions between scenes, at once both illustratively and narratively ingenious. At my local theatre, only one in eight showings a day were in 2D, so we didn't have a lot of choice in our viewing mode, but you sure won't be missing anything important if you choose not to see it in 3D so it may be worthwhile to find a 2D showing.

Like most adventure movies, the mystery is impossible to solve, but this does not distract from the romp in getting to the solution. And like most adventure movies, The Adventures of Tintin is left wide open for a sequel or sequels—there certainly is enough source material for more movies. I enjoyed the movie a good bit; it doesn't pretend to literary qualities it does not possess. Rather it is just good fun that adults and children can enjoy, and delightfully appropriate for the holiday season.

(And my fervent wish is that the international success of The Adventures of Tintin leads both to a wider knowledge of European comics and more movies of similar material, say an Asterix and Obelix movie.)

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