Anyone who felt cheated and pandered to after seeing Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-bait movie War Horse or disappointed by the fizzle of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull pay heed: The Adventures of Tintin (his first CG-animated escapade) is quintessential Spielberg, an action-packed ride steeped in old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure that recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark by way of the Hardy Boys.
The Tintin character has only a cult following in the US, but abroad has been hugely popular since his initial comic book stories were created by Belgian artist Hergé during 1929-1976. An intrepid boy reporter and globetrotting adventurer, Tintin was a huge influence on many artists and filmmakers, among them Spielberg and executive producer Peter Jackson (director of the Lord of the Rings movies and the upcoming Hobbit adaptation). The two filmmakers are planning a series of Tintin films — each based on the original stories — with the intent of taking turns with the directing and producing duties.
This first installment, set circa the late ’30s, finds Tintin (Jamie Bell) thrust into intrigue after buying an elaborate model of a sailing ship named The Unicorn. The model holds a clue to a sunken treasure sought by the unscrupulous cad Sakharine (Daniel Craig), whose pirate ancestor went to the bottom of the ocean with it back in the 1600s. Tintin’s pursuit leads to his teaming up with a constantly inebriated sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis, recently “seen” as super-chimp Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and the unlikely duo race the clock to beat their foe to the treasure.
It’s fairly straightforward adventure fare, filled-out with chase sequences (sea, air, and land), sheiks and pirates, visual flair and clever transitions, and a good dose of humor. It’s told at a breakneck pace that sweeps the viewer along quickly enough to keep them from thinking to much about the more absurd plot elements (the way a good adventure story should).
As the recent Hugo was Martin Scorsese’s first use of 3-D filmmaking, so too is Tintin Spielberg’s first foray into the format — as well as his first use of motion-capture animation. It’s a make-or-break technique. When it’s done right you get breathtaking images a la Avatar; when it goes wrong, you get doll-faced plastic people with eerie dead eyes as in The Polar Express. Fortunately, Spielberg and Jackson have access to some of the best talent in the business; the character’s faces are ocassionally creepy and Tintin’s ginger cowlick makes look like a cross between Ed Grimley and Conan O’Brien, but we’re too impressed by the intricate detail and fluidity of motion to notice, and too busy being swept along by the story to care.