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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin


War Horse found the legendary Steven Spielberg digging through the wartime footlocker that served him so well in such epics as Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. The Adventures of Tintin, which was released on practically the same day, highlights a completely different, but equally traditional Spielberg.

In the same groove as Raiders of the Lost Ark, a saga inspired rather lovingly by matinee serials of the 1940’s and 50’s, the basis for this Spielberg film is an actual comic strip—The Adventures of Tintin, an adventure series first published in Belgium in 1929. It’s about a plucky reporter and his sidekick pooch, Snowy, who trot the globe looking for the ultimate scoop, and despite its 80 or so years of universal popularity, it hasn’t made much of a splash this side of the Atlantic.

The animated film adaptation in question is a collaborative effort from Spielberg and Middle Earth maestro Peter Jackson (supposedly he’ll be directing the next installment, if they make one). Because the two share a well-documented aspiration to keep the cinema tech-rev train in motion, Tintin is a Motion-Capture 3-D extravaganza. So, as you might expect, the film is wonderful to look at, but its Saturday-morning-cartoon storyline has the wow-factor of a room full of animators on computers.

The film opens at a European flea market where Tintin (played and voiced by Jamie Bell) is sitting for a caricaturist’s portrait. Before we see his face, we see the artist’s interpretation and, in a cute a little homage, it’s the dot-eyed, pointy-nosed cartoon character so famous internationally. “That doesn’t look like me,” a voice says as the boy, now with far more fleshed-out features and hazel-green eyes, wheels around. Spielberg always had a knack for introducing his characters in clever ways.

At the same market, Tintin buys a model ship that, unbeknownst to him, hides one of three secret maps, combined they lead to a massive undersea treasure. That would explain why the sinister Mr. Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is willing to kidnap Tintin and Snowy just to get to it. On the massive frigate where Tintin is now captive, a drunken sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis) gets usurped by his crew and has no choice but to ally with our junior journalist. The two escape and go searching for the sunken treasure.

In 100 minutes of high-pulsed narrative, Spielberg stages at least one tour-de-force exemplification of Mo-Cap 3-D capabilities. An unbroken four minute long-take depicts a prolonged chase scene through a Moroccan shantytown, in which the characters ride on motorcycles, swing from clotheslines, and jump from rooftops and windows in an epic scramble to procure the valuable treasure maps. The torn brown scraps float three dimensionally just out of the characters’ grasps throughout the entire sequence. The scene exhibits the essence of the 3-D experience, compelling the audience to stretch out their arms from their seats and become a part of the scene, just like Tintin, as the documents flutter freely around the theater.

Even on an off day, Spielberg has the potential to deliver such wonder. Though based on a classic Tintin issue from the 30’s, this film incarnation still lacks a certain something—the story and the characters just don’t generate much excitement. The script (by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) doesn’t have a particularly clever or original bone in its body. At times, the movie recalls Raiders at its swashbuckling best, but the titular adventurer is like a preschooler’s Indiana Jones, his prize is hardly the Ark of the Covenant but (eye-roll) some anonymous treasure, and his nemeses are not nearly as fun as disgruntled Nazis. Spielberg once made movies that delightfully swept you up into their flights of fancy. If his state-of-the-art technical toys are more immersive than ever before, how come Tintin never really gets off the ground?

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