“The Adventures Of Tintin” is a preposterously fun movie, first and foremost, regardless of what technology was used to make it. It is very old-fashioned in storytelling terms, but cutting-edge in the way it’s told. It tells a rough-and-tumble adventure story that is more real-world than much of what Hollywood makes these days, but it’s animated in a way that removes it from reality completely. It is a film that seems to hinge on a number of contradictions, and that friction is just one of the reasons I really loved the experience.
Much has been written about how long Steven Spielberg’s been interested in making a film version of Herge’s long-running comic series, and one of the biggest questions that I’ve heard repeatedly is “Why would he do it as a performance capture animated film?” I think the first answer to that question is obvious after you see the movie and you see Snowy, Tintin’s canine sidekick, in action. Snowy is a major character in the film, and has an outsized personality. Trying to get the same performance out of a real dog in the middle of a film also involving stunts and special effects and international travel would be a nightmare, and as it is, Snowy is one of the main highlights of the movie now. Also, there is a sense of scale and abandon to the way the action is staged in the film that would be a nightmare to orchestrate in live-action, and I think working in animation has set Spielberg free in a way I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from him before.
Ultimately, though, the tools used wouldn’t matter if the film was no fun.
And this film is nothing but fun.
From the very first frame of the film, there’s a feeling that this is a labor of love. The opening title sequence takes us through the printed history of Tintin in a very real and tangible way, and then an early scene in the film introduces the character sitting for a portrait by an artist who looks suspiciously like Herge. He holds up his finished drawing next to the “real” Tintin, and that moment serves as a bridge from the pen and ink version to this new version. It’s a very simple but clever move, and the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish is loaded with little touches and tweaks that will delight long-time fans. They’ve adapted several of the books here, mixing and matching elements from a number of stories to create a rousing worldwide quest that is triggered when Tintin discovers a clue to a historical mystery inside a boat he buys at a street market.
There’s a tactile quality to the world of the movie that I found impressive. Doing this as performance-capture instead of conventional animation gives the characters a physical heft that is very different than the squash-and-stretch feel that is essential when you’re doing pure animation. I think the action sequences have an extra punch as a result, and it also means that when you see characters like Thomson and Thompson doing slapstick, it’s the real interaction between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and not just their voices with someone else defining their characters physically.
I’ve already heard a few people complaining that Tintin is the least defined character in the film, and it’s a hard spot for Jamie Bell to be in. Traditionally, the Tintin in the books has been a sort of blank page for readers to use to imagine themselves in the adventures. He doesn’t come loaded down with some detailed backstory or some dense character mythology, and while I certainly like characters who have that sort of thing in some films, I like that Tintin is just… Tintin. He’s a young reporter, he’s got a dog, he gets in adventures. It’s not much more complicated than that, and as a result, the movie maintains this crazy breathless pace as it races from plot point to set piece to character to plot point to joke… it’s ridiculous how fast it all moves, and yet, there’s a clarity to the storytelling that never feels frantic at all.
Because Tintin is a bit of a blank, the characters around him are drawn even more richly, and that’s appropriate. I love Daniel Craig as the mysterious Ivanovich Sakharine, also on the trail of the clues that lead Tintin into a search for the treasure that was onboard a long-lost ship. I think Pegg and Frost are a great match as Thompson and Thomson, and their interactions with Silk, a sticky-fingered thief played by Toby Jones, are consistently funny. But if you’re looking for a big personality in the film, look no further than Captain Haddock, played by digital superstar Andy Serkis.
And, yes, it’s true. Serkis is the Lon Chaney of our age, a guy who has embraced the use of certain tools to slip from one skin to another, invisible inside the roles he plays. His Captain Haddock is a marvel, a man tortured by the idea that he lost his family’s legacy and has no idea how to restore it, a man who has decided that the only way to cope with his pain is with drink. He’s almost like Popeye, but with booze instead of spinach, an idea that makes me laugh. He doesn’t show up until what feels like about halfway into the film, and once he does, it kicks into a higher gear. He and Snowy provide terrific counterpoint as Tintin works to solve the mystery, and they are often used as comic relief, but Serkis is such a good performer that he gives Haddock all these fascinating rough edges that make him seem human. I am sure that more actors will start getting comfortable with this process, but right now, Serkis is the one who has embraced it most completely and most successfully. If any other actor had played both Caesar and Haddock in one year, we wouldn’t even be debating it. That person would be in the hunt for an award at the end of the year, easily. At some point, actors and the Academy are going to have to embrace the idea that this is no different than the heavy old-age make-up worn by Leonardo DiCaprio. If anything, motion-capture technology allows a greater range of expression at this point, and can do more to transform an actor without burying them completely.
For me, the real star of the film is Steven Spielberg. When I think of great action filmmaking that I love, I think of the way scenes build or the way gags are set up and paid off or the energy or a giddy sense of invention, and all of those things are on display here, and in a way that should serve as a reminder that this is the same director who made “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” one of the single best action adventure movies of all time. This might be the closest we ever come to seeing a movie that is being projected directly from Spielberg’s brain with no filter in-between, and that’s really only because of the technology. He was able to try things here that he could never do in live-action, like a jaw-dropping chase scene that covers several miles and several minutes, all in one long uninterrupted shot. You can almost hear Spielberg cackling as things unfold. The amazing historical ship-to-ship battle that opens the film is a textbook lesson in how to choreograph chaos without ever confusing the audience. There’s also a huge battle between giant cranes near the end of the film that may count as the single strangest swordfight of all time, and again, it feels like he’s just having fun.
I don’t think “The Adventures Of Tintin” is a particularly deep film, and I would argue that there’s little subtext here to be sussed out. No matter. It’s got a great John Williams score, it’s gorgeous to look at, and did I mention that it’s fun? The movie’s title makes you a promise, and beat for beat, scene for scene, sequence for sequence, there are few films you’ll see this year that deliver adventure this grand or this beautifully constructed. It is a casually great movie, a film that aspires to do nothing but entertain, a noble goal that it more than accomplishes.
“The Adventures Of Tintin” opens in the US on December 21st, but is currently open in many international markets.