By William Frasca.
One of the best family films to see this holiday season is The Adventures of Tintin. This full-length animated film is a smart, simple adventure movie that is entertaining from beginning to end. The film is an adaptation of the comic series and is able to take the detective mystery crime genre to new heights with the CGI and motion-capture effects. Producers Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are able to exploit their best cinematic tools to make this classic comic a modern 3D movie without diminishing the substance of the material.
The opening credits begin with a 2D silhouette animation that foreshadows all the upcoming plot points. This colorful stylized introduction is great enough to rival that of a Pixar film. Tintin’s dog, Snowy, steals the show as we watch a pickpocket steal the wallets of unsuspecting people in the market from the dog’s point of view in the film’s opening scene. This pickpocket is a great MacGuffin as we think that this criminal will become the main focus of the film, but instead he is just another character whose actions advance the plot later in the film. Tintin buys a model of a ship called the Unicorn, and is puzzled that a sinister Mr. Sakharine is so eager to buy it from him. Tintin discovers that this model ship contains a clue to discovering the sunken treasure of the original Unicorn. A U.S. federal agent who is gunned down by thugs tries to warn Tintin before they kidnap him. He and Snowy find themselves on a cargo ship heading toward Morocco. Sakharine has bribed the crew to revolt against Captain Haddock, and when Tintin and Snowy discover the drunken captain they make a thrilling guns- blazing escape. Tintin realizes that Captain Haddock is an ancestor to the captain of the Unicorn and this lineage will inevitably lead them to the location of the treasure, once they find the third model ship in Morocco. With another thrilling escape, they are able to hijack a boat plane, but then crash it into the desert. While in the desert, Haddock sobers up and remembers what his grandfather told him about the Unicorn. During his flashback, pirates loot the treasure stowed aboard capture Captain Haddock’s ship, and the spectacular action mimics that of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. They are discovered by the French military and Haddock’s illusions continue in a hilarious parallel editing sequence. He reenacts the fight in a delusional state of mind in the base as he continues the story about the Unicorn. He discovers that it was Sakharine’s ancestor who hijacked the Unicorn, and now his family wants vengeance on Haddock for sinking the ship.
Tintin and Haddock go into the Moroccan city on camel back, which is very reminiscent of Spielberg’s Indian Jones films with its lush desert mise-en-scène and flourishing music score. Sakharine uses his affluence to be the guest of the opera singer who is performing for, Ben Sallad, the owner of the third Unicorn model ship. In a Hitchcockian twist of events, like in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the antagonist uses music to cover up the crime, and in this case, the high pitch sound of the opera singer breaks the bullet proof case that enclosed the third Unicorn model. Soon a motorcycle/car chase ensues, similar to that of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” but taken to the extreme with CGI actions that defy gravity, and the fact that Spielberg does the entire several minutes of the chase without cutting literally takes the viewer’s breath away. Sakharine gets away with all three clues and Tintin wants to gives up, but Haddock inspires him to push through the “wall” that is blocking them from successes. They go back to London were Sakharine’s ship is docked, and Tintin enlists the help of officers Thomson and Thompson to arrest the criminals. Sakharine and Haddock duke it out with cranes until Sakharine is defeated in another intense action sequence.
The film concludes with Haddock and Tintin navigating by car to the coordinates that the clues revealed. They find themselves at the old mansion where Tintin began his adventure. They go inside to find the butler, who by association looked to be part of Sakharine’s crew, but is actually a servant of the estate. In the cellar Snowy discovers another room hidden behind a wall. Like the quote that Haddock used to encourage Tintin, they “pushed” through the wall. Inside they find a globe in which Haddock notices an island that does not exist and touches it to reveal a secret opening in the globe. It contained the captain’s hat of Haddock’s ancestor full of gold treasure. Tintin then discovers a map with the coordinates of the sunken treasure and the film ends alluding to another adventure in which the team will soon embark on.
The casting in the film is superb. Enlisting Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the idiotic, but well-meaning, police officers Thomson and Thompson provided the right amount of comic relief to the non-stop action of the film. A notable scene is when they discover the pickpocket and enter his apartment that is full of wallets, but ironically they are oblivious until the thief confesses and they find Tintin’s stolen wallet. This use of irony is one example of sophisticated writing that makes the humor in the film tasteful. These two characters could have become futile if over used, but they only appear at key moments to the audience’s delight. Also, the performances of Tintin by Jamie Bell, Captain Haddock by Andy Serkis and Sakharine by Daniel Craig bring these animations to life by embodying the character. The star’s voices in The Adventures of Tintin are unrecognizable which allows the audience to become more involved in the illusion of the movie. This method is often abandoned with many Pixar and DreamWorks films whose recognizable star personas become closely associated with the characters.
Peter Jackson’s notable attributes are its epic camera moves. Throughout the film, long takes tell the story through dynamic movements that show off the capabilities of modern computer enhancement. For example, there is a camera move that fallows Tintin in a close-up as he runs on the deck of the cargo ship. The camera pulls out into an extreme long shot that provides perspective of the whole ship as he and the crew run about. Also, during the scene were they are watching the opera singer perform the camera tracks in through the glass case in a single take. These kinds of movements have been done in live action films, but here it is done so effortlessly and in such abundance that they become forgettable in conjunction with the non-stop action and suspense of the film.
Peter Jackson’s experience creating realistic human CGI characters lent itself well to the film. The motion capture animations of the people are between a state of character and realism with exaggerated features like noses and bodies and clothing. This balance between cartoon features that resemble that of the comic and the realistic lighting and texture of the body and costume make this film stand out against all other popular digitally animated film. When it comes to recreating digitally animated humans, most films try to embody one extreme feature or the other. For example, the Toy Story films make their humans look as cartoon as the toy characters themselves and in Polar Express the attempt to make animated realistic humans results in stiff figures with unflattering faces. In The Adventures of Tintin a creative balance was found in the face of Tintin. His face looks like that of the comic, but his facial features are recessive and natural compared to that of all the other characters which have budging noses. Haddock, whose large nose and small eyes make him look like a cartoon, show that there is a sense of pragmatism that is controlled by the filmmaker. With all the characters they decided to hold back on some traits and exploit others to fit the needs of the director.
The Adventures of Tintin is a great start to what will become an exciting franchise. It re-establishes Steven Spielberg as one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. His ability to adapt to popular cinema while finding an artistic sensibility that matches the spectacle of the new technology is something rare to see in a contemporary Hollywood that indulges on CGI effects.
William Frasca is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.