Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

2011, Stephen Spielberg & Peter Jackson -- theatre

For all my many, many, many years of reading many, many, many comic books, I've honestly never read a Tintin book before, and, in fact, his signature redheaded cowlick and tiny white Scottie were about all I knew of the character beyond the name.  But, as any comics fan -- even an ignorant one -- should be able to tell you, that name carries weight... internationally recognize, legendary even.  But what Tintin is all about, well, you have to read it to understand, and I certainly didn't.

Coming into this mo-cap animated feature from blockbuster filmmakers Spielberg and Jackson I had little idea of what to expect.  I long made up my mind that Tintin was just some kid, who, Johnny Quest-style, was dragged around the world on adventure after adventure in the early 1900's.  Moments into the film I learned he wasn't a kid, but an independent teen, an adventure journalist of some repute, and that age difference between what I thought and actuality makes for all the difference.  Instead of being a kids movie it's actually a straight-up adventure movie.

You'd think I'd know better, given the horribly stereotyped reputation comics get as "kids stuff", but I still consider most animated pictures to be kids movies.  I suspect it's because the Hollywood studio system has largely only delivered family-friendly animated pictures, and far too frequently cloying or juvenile ones at that.  The cost of a fully CGI-animated picture is not altogether cheap and these days it seems only blockbusters and kids movies (and films based on popular teen book series) make money, so it's a risky gambit to make a fully animated film that isn't meant for a younger audience (it's doubtful we'll ever see a high-quality hard-R fully-CGI movie).  Given that, naturally it would take two of the biggest names in film making and one of the most popular characters in the world, and now here's an animated movie that's not only not family friendly (not in the traditional, politically correct sense anyway) but, in fact, one that made me feel a little uncomfortable watching it with my ten year old (and he'd already seen it).

Within the first ten minutes of the picture, a man is gunned down on Tintin's doorstep, and a few minutes later Tintin is clubbed on the head and taken prisoner.  It's really quite shocking when you're expecting kid gloves.  These incidents all revolve around Tintin's acquisition of a model replica of the Unicorn, a forgotten pirate ship that was said to have sank after a fierce battle with untold fortunes in its bellows.  The replica, one of three passed on to descendants of the pirate captain, contains a secret message within, and that's what the bad guys are after, but through dumb luck it eludes them so they take Tintin instead.  In escaping his captors, proving himself a rather ingenious little fellow, Tintin encounters Captain Haddock, a serious drunkard who may be the last descendant of the Unicorn's captain, and the key to discovering the wreckage's whereabouts.  So naturally the bad guys are willing to chase Haddock and Tintin (and his little dog too) around the globe, with seemingly endless gunplay, and it's all rather glorious.

Tintin is the product of another time, when seeing the other side of the world wasn't just a mouse click away and when high adventure was part of the entertainment lexicon.  These days, adventure gets lost under big budget action, science-fiction, fantasy and superhero genres, to the point that the audience (and too often the filmmakers) doesn't understand its rhythms, and either the films are unsuccessful or messy hybrids.

Tintin succeeds where others fail because of the obvious passion its filmmakers for the source material and the genre in which it plays (this from a co-creator of Indiana Jones, after all).  As well, the animated format allows for just enough detachment from reality that the more absurd action doesn't play so, well, absurdly.  The film is expertly paced, which is something not enough big-budget films are, building into action set pieces rather than relentlessly piling them one atop the other.

The script from Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish is fantastic, with a full understanding of what it means to build a fun story and characters (from the guys behind The Office, Extras, Spaced, Scott Pilgrim and Attack the Block, you know they do), not getting too steeped into melodrama or overly slapstick or corny about the humour (given their repertoire, it better not be corny).  It doesn't play dumb for the audience, for instance Haddock's drinking is right out there on the table, played for laughs much of the time, but also addressed without getting too maudlin about it.

The motion capture technique is used effectively with the animation style... it approaches the uncanny valley line but never quite crosses it, sticking with the Herge-inspired stylization and while there's the occasional feeling of surreality, it's more likely to do with the 3-D integration than the animation.

The cast is superb, though seriously Y-chromosome-centric.  Jamie Bell is note perfect for Tintin, with Andy Serkis providing yet another dynamite behind-the-veil performance as Haddock.  Daniel Craig makes for a surprisingly effective villain, and the supporting cast all come out ready to play.  Spielberg is, without a doubt, a great director, and he's able to elicit some exceptionally solid performances out of his actors in this most unusual form of cinematography.  The score from legendary Spielberg accomplice John Williams is hands down his best in over a decade.  Williams sheds much of his tell-tale style, opting for a bit more of a restrained yet playful feel and it both stands out and perfectly compliments the tone of the film.

To be perfectly frank, as I was saying about modern audiences not appreciating the adventure genre, I freely admit to being guilty of that (hell, I've never really cared all that much for Indiana Jones).  I'm much fonder of action and sci fi, but this was downright impressive.  It may not have converted me, but it's sticking with me in a way few other of its kind have.  Who knows, I may even pick up a Tintin comic one of these days.