You'd have been forgiven for thinking that Steven Spielberg had lost his fun gene after he last gifted our cinema screens, a distant-seeming three years ago, with the dismal "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull": a soulless, haphazardly crafted piece of directorial brand-whoring, in which Harrison Ford's eyes appeared deader than those of any mo-cap mannequin.
Tardily reviving a beloved franchise that seemed to have reached generational closure in its third installment was always a dubious move -- but it acquires full-blown redundancy with the arrival of "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," a springy, souped-up entertainment whose ample boy's-own pleasures hew far closer to the original Indiana Jones template than that dim 2008 sequel.
Of course, the Tintin-Indy parallel is neither original nor accidental: Spielberg was allegedly first drawn to Belgian author-artist Hergé’s classic boy-adventurer comics 30 years ago, after some critics made the comparison in reviews of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; he’s held the film rights to the series, on and off, since 1983, himself visualizing the films as “Indiana Jones for kids.”
He’s had a long time to think about it, to put it lightly, and that thought process is visibly up there on the screen: as lovingly detailed an homage to the director’s own past glories as to the source material itself, the film is perhaps most notable for its lack of tonal compromise, and occasionally hampered by an urge to translate as many facets of the Tintin phenomenon as the markedly trim 106-minute film can hold. (It’s worth noting that “Tintin” is the shortest theatrical feature of Spielberg’s career; if the rigors and restrictions of motion-capture technology are what’s making him work this tidily, then bring on the future.)
Many Hergé devotees, this writer included, may have expressed concerns about the stability of a marriage between Hollywood’s foremost purveyor of high-gloss, high-concept mass entertainment and the more quizzically European charms of the 1940s-set comics. What the American and the late Belgian share, however, is a story-loyal earnestness that serves the film well: the Tintin books were never as quippy or ironic as the comparable French-speaking Asterix franchise (when I was growing up, kids mostly sided with one or the other), characterized instead by the density of their mystery plots and the gentleness (wetness, detractors might say) of their humor. Never a filmmaker accused of great wit, Spielberg’s wide-eyed naïvete as a yarn-spinner is what protects the material from the dread threat of a winking postmodern makeover.
Such treatment did appear to be on the cards with the recruitment of hip British comedy merchants Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”) to polish Steven Moffat’s initial screenplay, but the rollicking, action-heavy narrative scarcely offers breathing room for their more singular affectations. (One of them, an unprompted bestiality-themed joke involving sheep and sailors, strikes a decidedly odd note.) A grab-bag of story elements from three of Hergé’s books that sometimes leaves the seams exposed – as in a protracted and rhythmically misplaced flashback sequence of high-seas swashbuckling – the script is mostly content simply to follow Tintin, the boyish Brussels-based reporter-turned-detective realized here by Jamie Bell, around.
He’s certainly busy enough: his quest on this occasion, zippy nonsense involving buried pirate’s booty that scarcely warrants description, takes him from Western Europe to the Sahara to Morocco and back again. In pursuit is Daniel Craig’s supercilious villain; in constant attendance are his two chief allies from throughout the series, sozzled Scottish seadog Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and, of course, his little white mutt Snowy. (Fans may be disappointed by the rather cursory treatment meted out to recurring subsidiary characters, including bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson and preening Milanese soprano Bianca Castafiore. Next time, perhaps.)
Only in detailing the circumstances of Tintin and Haddock’s acquaintance, and incorporating Marlinspike Hall, the grand Haddock family mansion that remains their joint home throughout the comics, does the film count as an origin story: for the most part, the uninitiated are blithely required to accept without explanation this family-free child-man’s curious career path.
(Perhaps as a nod to the character’s unlikely latter-day status as a gay icon, the script has some evasive fun with the question of Tintin’s sexuality, or lack thereof: “I’d rather you keep them on, thank you very much,” he primly replies to Haddock’s figurative line about being caught with his pants down, while a neighbor informs us that “Mr. Tintin has strictly no visitors after bedtime.”)
It’s all sufficiently propulsive that the motion-capture technology used to render this whole adventure becomes a less distinguishing hook than it might have been – which is as well, since for all its unprecedented state-of-the-art application here, the medium still demands occasional compromises in magic, notably in the area of character work. Tintin in particular, pastier and more physically edgeless than the wiry ginger of Hergé’s designs, isn’t the most appealing of presences. (Mo-cap king Andy Serkis, however, does prove that forceful voice work – this time with a lavish Scottish brogue – can override visual barriers.)
Still, the film’s smashing key set pieces – notably a gorgeous, breathless downhill chase through the streets and canals of Bagghar as thrilling as any live-action sequence from Spielberg’s oeuvre – fully justify this technological leap of faith, while also successfully adapting the distinctive flat-color textures of Hergé’s trademark ligne claire drawing style. It’s in these scenes, presumably the toughest for the director to build with these unfamiliar tools, that “The Adventures of Tintin” nonetheless feels most effortlessly Spielbergian, with John Williams’s insistently clangy score (most interesting when it creeps, “Catch Me If You Can”-style) a comfort even when it overbears.
If any one image from the film sums up the assurance of this lickety-split franchise-starter, it’s the playful sight gag of Tintin’s trademark red quiff cutting through the ocean like a shark fin from “Jaws”: where Spielberg’s last film dispassionately clung to his popular legacy, this fresh, foreign inspiration gets him to include himself in the joke.
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