Monday, April 16, 2012

The Uncanny "Tintin"

I never read the "Tintin" comics, but I certainly know them by reputation. You can't do much reading about comics without stumbling across reference after reference to the beloved Belgian boys' adventure series that began in the late 1920s, and saw it's young reporter hero, Tintin, solving mysteries and having adventures in all sorts of exotic lands, with his faithful dog Snowy by his side. Sadly, I expect the biggest stumbling block between American audiences and the "Tintin" movie will end up being the age of the property. Between "The Adventures of Tintin" and "John Carter," it seems that technology has finally caught up to the point where the adventures of many beloved older characters can finally be brought to the big screen without compromise. But now they face a different dilemma - have their stories become too outdated and unfamiliar to attract the current generation of moviegoers? I didn't have many apprehensions about "Tintin," but I'm a grown woman who has very fond memories of Indiana Jones and the Scrooge McDuck comics and other tales of colonialist-era derring-do.

Then again, there's the head-turning level of talent that contributed to the film. Steven Spielberg directed, and his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz KamiƄski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams all lent their talents to "Tintin." The screenplay is credited to Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, who deliver a rousing, old fashioned adventure that sends Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Snowy after a model ship that may lead to a sunken treasure. They're up against a sinister villain named Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who has a hidden agenda, but fortunately Tintin has the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg) on his side. And I was happy to see that "Tintin" was a notch more adult than the usual American animated film. Haddock's alcoholism is sometimes played for laughs, but sometimes addressed completely seriously. Also, though we don't see a drop of blood on screen, many of the gun battles and fight scenes get pretty intense.

The visuals, however, present another challenge. It makes sense that a "Tintin" adaptation should be animated, due to the globetrotting and some of the more outlandish comic-book elements. However, I question the decision to go with full motion-capture CGI, the technique commonly used in the Robert Zemeckis productions like "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol." Here, all the CGI is handled by Peter Jackson's special effects company, WETA Digital, and it's a considerable improvement on Zemeckis films. It's only in the odd frame that a character will have a dead-eyed look, or tread too close to the "Uncanny Valley" where the more realistic a character looks, the more unreal he comes across. Yet the "illusion of life" still isn't quite on par with what you see in more traditional forms of animation. The movie is certainly gorgeous to look at, a combination of almost photorealistic environments and caricatured human characters. Unfortunately, it also comes across as a mishmash of styles, ranging from a cartoonish Snowy to human beings who can look very realistic in certain lights. More than once, I found myself pulled out of the movie, noticing places where the visuals just didn't match up right.

One character who looks a little too real is Tintin himself, who doesn't have nearly the range of expressions as the more exaggerated Haddock and Sakharine. As someone who is unfamiliar with Tintin, the brave young adventurer left me a little cold. I don't know if it was the relative stiffness of the character animation (if it should be called that), his bland demeanor, Jamie Bell's performance, or that I had so little by way of introduction to him, but I found it difficult to stay invested in what Tintin was doing. However, I found I liked the film better as Haddock took a more active role in the second and third acts. Andy Serkis is unrecognizable, which is, I suppose, the great talent of Andy Serkis. He's as wonderful as he always is in these motion capture roles, which adds more evidence to the argument that you really need actors with a certain skill set for motion capture. Most recent films to use the technique have fallen short, picking celebrities over more appropriate talent.

"Tintin" did convince me of one thing, which is that Steven Spielberg and animation are made for each other. There are a couple of great action sequences here that look more "Indiana Jones" than anything in the last "Indiana Jones" movie, and would have been almost impossible to realize in live action. Spielberg uses the medium to its fullest, constructing dizzying shots that travel through multiple decks of a ship, or switch among several characters' POVs as Tintin and Haddock chase the crooks on a borrowed motorcycle. This is the best straightforward action movie I've seen from the Spielberg camp in a long time, and it's a wonderful return to this spirit of his summer spectaculars of the 80s and 90s.

So while "Tintin" may have some major flaws, it's a lot of fun too. When the story hits its stride, it's a wonderful ride. And though I may nitpick about technique and aesthetics, in the end the movie won me over. I look forward to more "Tintin" to come.

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