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A Steven Spielberg Double-Feature Part I — The Adventures of Tintin

Steven Spielberg has only directed one film since Munich (click here for my review) in 2005, and that was the tragically disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 (which I prefer to pretend never happened).  That’s a long dry spell for one of the masters of modern cinema.  Luckily for us all, Mr. Spielberg burst back onto cinema screens in a big way, late last month, with the release of not one, but TWO new films, released just three days apart from one another: The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. I saw them both during a terrifically fun late-night double-feature.  I’ll be back here soon with my thoughts on War Horse — for now, let’s dive into The Adventures of Tintin.

The film is, of course, based on the long-running French-language comic-book series written and illustrated by the Belgian artist Hergé.  It draws upon material from several of the Tintin books, including The Secret of the Unicorn (which was, at one point, the sub-title for this film — I’m not certain when that was dropped), The Crab with the Golden Claws, and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Tintin, Boy Reporter, purchases a model of a three-masted sailing ship, The Unicorn, at an outdoor market and immediately finds himself embroiled in a globe-trotting adventure involving various parties’ search for the wreck of the actual ship The Unicorn, which is rumored to contain an enormous treasure.

The film is magnificent, a viscerally entertaining romp all the way through.  When the film ended and the lights went up, I couldn’t believe it was over — the time had passed so quickly.  I’ve heard people comparing The Adventures of Tintin in tone to Raiders of the Lost Ark. While Tintin doesn’t equal that masterpiece, there certainly are similarities in terms of the film’s pulp-inspired adventurous spirit, and the rapid pace in which we (and the hero character) are thrown from one exciting action-sequence into the next.

Actually, what the Adventures of Tintin reminds me of, even more than Raiders, is the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, depicting one of young Indy (played by River Phoenix)’s adventures.  Not only is our protagonist a fairly young boy who is surprisingly tough and clever for his age, but there’s a delicate balance between intense action that features peril for our hero and an almost slapstick comedic sensibility.

That’s a tough balance to find, but with Steven Spielberg’s hand at the helm (not to mention producer Peter Jackson’s), it’s a balance that The Adventures of Tintin makes look effortless.  There are so many thrilling sequences that stick out in my mind, from the film.  There are the flashbacks to the doomed final voyage of The Unicorn, in which the ship’s captain engages in a sword-fight-to-the-death aboard the ship’s burning hull.  There’s the much-talked-about (and deservedly so) mad-cap chase through Morocco which unfolds without a single cut or edit.  (That sequence is such a bravura presentation of imagination mixed with technical genius that my jaw was on the floor.)  But there’s also a lovely humor running through the film.  The bumbling policemen Thompson and Thompson (played by the brilliantly-cast comic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) provide the film’s main source of comic relief, but even the action sequences contain an endless amount of joy, even while also being tense and serious.  I had a grin from ear-to-ear watching the afore-mentioned Morocco chase sequence unfold.  I’m also thinking about the scene in which Tintin tries to grab a key off of a sleeping sailor, but must navigate the tightly-packed room — constantly swaying from side-to-side with the movement of the ship — without making a noise.  There’s real tension in the sequence, but it’s so entertainingly staged that it’s a hoot to watch.

I saw Tintin at an evening show, but was surprised to see the theatre filled mostly with parents with their kids.  I wonder if this says more about American audiences’ lack of familiarity with the source material, or just our general feeling in this country that animated films must be for kids.  The Adventures of Tintin is not really a kids movie.  There’s nothing inappropriate in it, but it’s a much more violent, intense adventure than I suspect most of those families were expecting.  Tintin gets pretty knocked around in the opening minutes, and not in a Loony Tunes type of way.  Then, about ten minutes in, there’s a scene in which someone knocks at Tintin’s door and he is worried it’s someone up to no good.  So Tintin cautiously approaches the door, all the while reaching back to the HANDGUN IN THE BACK OF HIS TROWSERS.  Yowza!  That raised even my eyebrows.  Young Tintin is packing!  That shot more than any other, I think, illustrates the tone of this film.  It’s a fun adventure, but the story is set in a world of real dangers.

I should highlight the film’s energetic opening credits, which present us with entire Tintin adventure, separate from the story of the film, all contained in just a few minutes.  They’re a riot, and I loved the stylized 2-D animation style used.  John Williams’ score is gorgeous, though I sort of wished for a more distinct Tintin “hero” theme.  (I wanted something like Mr. William’s amazing Indiana Jones theme music for some of the times when Tintin launched into an adventurous moment.)  I also thought the music playing over the opening credits was a bit reminiscent of Mr. Williams’ great theme music for Catch Me If You Can. But these are minor quibbles.

The 3-D computer-generated animation is gorgeous.  The characters and their environments are realized in stunningly intricate detail.  This is the best non-Pixar computer-animation I think I’ve ever seen.  The motion-capture work is superb.  I avoided many of the mo-cap animated features of recent years (Robert Zemeckis’ films The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol being two high-profile examples), and I’m glad I did, but the work of the artists and actors involved in this film is extraordinary.

And, yes, there are actors involved here, most notably the great Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, a good-hearted drunkard of a sea captain whom Tintin encounters early in the film, and who proves to be central to the unfolding mystery.  Mr. Serkis, of course, became a major pioneer in motion-capture work with his memorable portrayal of Gollum/Smeagol from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and has been proving himself, again (in King Kong) and again (in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as a master of the form.  His Captain Haddock is a wonderful creation, coarse but lovable, and I must stand and applaud Mr. Serkis’ superlative work.

The only nit I can pick with The Adventures of Tintin is with the opening.  It seems weak to me that Tintin, on a total lark, buys this model ship that proves to be the center of the whole story.  That the whole film hinges on such a complete and utter coincidence is a bit lame, if you ask me.  What brought Tintin to that market?  How did this model — which apparently people have been desperately seeking — wind up in the possession of the old man at the market anyway?  The film dodges these questions.  To me, it would have been stronger if there was some reason why Tintin was looking for that ship to begin with, or perhaps if the previous owner of the model had some reason to seek Tintin out, in order to draw him into the adventure.

Those thoughts bugged me for the first five or so minutes of the film, but were then quickly forgotten.  The Adventures of Tintin represents a beautiful collision of the talents of Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, two titans of modern cinema, and two masters of the crowd-pleasing adventure film.  When their collaboration on this adaptation of Tintin was originally announced, I remember hearing that the plan was to make a trilogy of films, with Peter Jackson directing the second installment, and with the two men co-directing the third film.  I sincerely hope that comes to pass!!  I would gladly sign up for many more of the adventures of Tintin, if they’re crafted with as much skill as this one.

I’ll be back here soon with my thoughts on War Horse!

Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds (2005), The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad(1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).

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