It’s been well over a decade since Steven Spielberg directed a family film. Now he has two out in the same week—both based on juvenile literary source material, and both European-set period pieces, redolent of nostalgia of one sort or another.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is Spielberg’s response to a decades-old vote of confidence. Hergé, the Belgian cartoonist who created the globally popular adventure comic book hero Tintin and spent over half a century writing and illustrating Tintin’s adventures, died in 1983, but not before seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and pronouncing Spielberg the right director for Tintin.
I’m not sure why Spielberg waited three decades before finally taking a crack at Tintin —or why he chose to work in performance-capture animation, a technique most associated with the uneven output of Spielberg’s protégé Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, Disney’s A Christmas Carol).
Perhaps he was waiting for the right team of collaborators. If so, you would think he found it: The story is adapted from a trio of Hergé’s adventures by “Doctor Who” honcho Steven Moffat, English comedy filmmaker Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and English comedian Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). Peter Jackson co-produced with Spielberg.
Jamie Bell, who played a young sailor in Jackson’s King Kong, seems a good choice to voice and perform Hergé’s intrepid youthful reporter. Other parts are equally well cast: Andy Sirkus as the hard-drinking Captain Haddock; Daniel Craig as the villainous Ivan Sakharine; Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the bumbling Scotland Yard detectives Thompson and Thompson.
It all works on paper, but for some reason it doesn’t quite come together onscreen. The story, cobbled together from three of Hergé’s original tales, has the requisite action, fantastic characters, exotic settings and picturesque plot twists: pirate ships, long-lost treasure, airplanes crashing in the desert, breakneck chase scenes. I imagine many parents may be pleased to discover a computer-animated family film that isn’t about crass jokes, pop culture references and obnoxious music—though Captain Haddock’s perpetual drunkenness may be less welcome.
Why doesn’t it work better? To start with, Tintin himself is a rather unengaging protagonist. To be sure, Hergé’s hero is a blank slate in the comics too. But in the comics I think his charm has a lot to do with the way he reacts to the amazing and picturesque goings-on around him.
As drawn by Hergé, Tintin exists in a near-perpetual state of excitement, dismay, agitation, curiosity, wonder, apprehension, confusion and/or delight. Although he is always having adventures and never backs down from a challenge, he seems to be always on the brink of being overwhelmed. His mouth is a little “o” of alarm. His head scatters sweat beads of amazement in all directions at almost every turn (a convention nicely honored in the pleasingly designed title sequence animation, with its 2-D look). I can’t quite call him wide-eyed, since his eyes are basically black dots, but his eyebrows are always flung high in token of a staring gaze. He seems, in a word, to be always in over his head.
The motion-capture Tintin is a much cooler customer. I don’t know whether Jamie Bell or the animators are to blame for not making Tintin more expressive, or whether it’s related to the infamous dead-eyed uncanny-valley effect that typically plagues performance capture, but whatever it is, it doesn’t work. There’s a scene with Tintin running all over a steamer ship full of armed goons trying to shoot him, and he seems as comfortable with this as James Bond—or Indiana Jones. Tintin in the comics was the perpetual small-town boy next door. Tintin in the movie is like the boy next door who’s been watching “Mantracker,” “Man vs. Wild” and “Mythbusters” for so long that he’s completely jaded to reality.
Tintin’s fantastic, charmingly naive little world is not well served by the epic quasi-realism of high-tech computer animation. Overtly cartoony 2D animation would work, naturally. I think a live-action production could possibly work, especially if it evoked a kind of obvious artificiality, a quaint staginess that might in some way be roughly analogous to Hergé’s clean, simple little drawings. (Come to think of it, a stage play of Tintin could work well—not a big-budget Broadway extravaganza, but a local community production, or even a school play.)
Computer animation is exactly the wrong medium for Tintin. It’s too rich and textured to work like hand-drawn animation, and it’s too self-cohesively persuasive to work like a live-action film with actors, sets, props and stunts.
Watching Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark dangling from the back of the Nazi truck was thrilling in part because you could see that Harrison Ford was really being towed in the dirt. When Tintin winds up flying through the air riding a telephone wire on a motorbike that’s gradually falling to pieces, nothing seems to be at stake. Not only do you know he’s going to land safely, you know no actors were asked to do anything difficult to bring us this scene. Of course, Woody and Buzz take falls in the Toy Story movies that feel as important as any live-action stunt, so it’s hard to reduce the problem to one factor, isn’t it?
Tintin’s loyal fox terrier, Snowy, is typical of the too-much, not-enough way that the film falls between stools. In the comics, Snowy gets word balloons that let us know what he’s thinking, though the humans can’t understand him. In the movies, Snowy is a typical movie dog in the mold of, say, Benji—accomplishing feats of super-canine intelligence, but never speaking a word. If you’re going to go that route, why a computer-animated dog rather than a live-action movie dog?
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