AFI Review: ‘The Adventures of Tintin’

"I wish Tintin had been live-action."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I was really looking forward to The Adventures of Tintin mainly because it’s a Spielberg movie. I always want to see a Spielberg movie. I don’t care if it’s animated, mocap, or 3D. I was glad AFI Fest provided an early chance to see the film, even earlier than the usual press screenings. However I found the film just okay, and from a director like Spielberg that’s almost worse than being a total 1941.

Indiana Jones was compared to Tintin, thus sparking Spielberg’s fascination with the Herge books. Today the Tintin movie resembles an homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark but if you’ve created the greatest unintentional homage to a work of art, then don’t do the real thing. Now the artist is taking a step back to be faithful to something when his own creation is way better.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) is a journalist who buys a model of the ship The Unicorn at a street market. When shady villain type Sakharine (Daniel Craig) expresses blatant interest in it, Tintin realizes there’s something bigger at stake. The mystery unfolds leading him on a quest across the ocean and around the world with his dog Snowy.

The action is totally Spielberg with sequences that build and build. It’s just they’re peppered with such puerile jokes, it undercuts the suspense. I’m not talking about one liners or visual gags. I’m talking about people getting hit in the face, dogs sniffing cows’ butts, elastic bumbling, more people getting hit in the face… Some of the humor is really clever. There is a great Jaws reference. There’s Jackie Chan-esque slapstick when improvised weapons don’t quite work out. There’s a great tweak on the classic “seeing songbirds” animation cliché. I don’t get the descent into immaturity.

It’s not that it’s animated. Pixar movies are plenty exciting. Avatar worked as mocap action. If you didn’t like the story it was a creative difference, not a failure of the technology. It could still be a motion capture thing, where you just can’t invest in actors playing on a stage. That’s when James Cameron steps in and says, “Okay kids, you’ve had your fun but this is how you do it.” I was hoping Spielberg would be a James Cameron too.

The greatest sequences in Tintin could have easily been done in live-action. Well, not easily, it would require a lot of setup, but it could be done practically. Sure, the camera can move freely in the computer, but Spielberg can set up his shots in the real world too. Honestly, I don’t get excited about a movie because it has great camerawork. Camera is something that helps tell story, and if I notice that it’s a shot that couldn’t be done with a real world camera, that only takes me out of the story to think about the process.

When Tintin punches someone it’s even the same sound effect as Indiana Jones. An escape from a ship incorporates every space of the boat and strategic prop use. The prop plane sequence builds catastrophe after catastrophe forcing Tintin to use his wits. A pirate ship battle using lanterns and gunpowder is brilliant, but it’s still cartoon fencing. A motorcycle chase leads through a market street. There are dueling cranes. That’s something I don’t think I’ve seen, but again would rather see metal on metal.

The film looks animated, not photoreal, but it looks like it takes place in real space with rich worlds. That makes it better than any of the Zemeckis mocap movies. The 3D does not add very much depth at all. I mean you can tell there’s space, but it’s not drastic. Another reason to see it in 2D.

You can’t really tell what famous actors are playing whom if you didn’t already know. They are simply the characters. Except for Andy Serkis. You can tell Captain Haddock is Andy Serkis, maybe because he’s such a pro at this his style has become distinct.

I wish Spielberg had done another animated film first to really get comfortable with the format, then done his baby. But really I wish Tintin had been live-action. And trust the kids to laugh at the grown-up jokes.