Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin (3.5/5)
Stephen Spielberg released The Adventures of Tintin nearly simultaneously with his other film, War Horse. The two are strike an interesting contrast with each other. Where War Horse plays the role of the classic Hollywood epic, Tintin serves as its hyperactive younger brother. Most in the Anglophone world are, at best, nominally familiar with the strangely coifed titular character, Tintin, but he’s a pretty big deal among the Francophone part of the globe. My history with the character is modest, having only watched a short lived animated version on Nickelodeon when I was a kid. So I’m familiar with some of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you how the movie stacks up to the source material. But the film itself is rather unruly, at times providing exciting action but also failing to tell a fully engaging story.
Tintin is a boy reporter (his age is somewhat ambiguous) who has a penchant for discovering vast plots that require quite a bit of globetrotting to uncover. The film opens with Tintin buying an old model ship, a replica of the lost galleon The Unicorn, at a flea market. He snatches it up mere moments before another buyer, Mr. Sakharine, arrives to pick up the ship. Tintin rebuffs any offer from Sakharine to purchase the MacGuffin, er, ship, from Tintin at a sizeable profit. Needless to say, the model ship is more than it first appears, and in fact it comprises part of a series of clues that lead to a long ago lost treasure. Sakharine doesn’t take Tintin’s refusal to sell kindly, ransacking the intrepid hero’s apartment and eventually kidnapping him and storing him on a large steamship. The ship’s captain, Captain Haddock, has been deposed by Sakharine and the mutinous crew. Tintin and Haddock team up to stop Sakharine and discover the secret behind the fate of the Unicorn and its treasure, a secret that has familial ties to Haddock himself, since it was his grandfather who captained the Unicorn before it became lost at sea.
Perhaps more so than Tintin himself, Haddock seems to be the fan favorite character. He’s a bit of a drunken buffoon, and while I would imagine he wouldn’t be the ideal partner for world wide adventuring, he’s great fun to watch. Tintin was filmed using motion capture techniques, similar to the ones used in those Robert Zemeckis films, Beowulf and The Polar Express. This isn’t my favorite kind of animation because, as others have noted, the combination of animated characters and eerily realistic movement tends to produce an uncanny valley effect. However, this technique does allow Andy Serkis to put in an enjoyably cartoonish performance in the role of Haddock. Serkis has become the go to man for motion capture performances—he’s kind of a 21st century Lon Chaney—and his robust performance is a highlight of the film. He plays Haddock as a perpetually energetic man who has little control over his own drinking, downing bottles of liquor before he has a chance to even think about it. To his credit, Spielberg keeps all of the now risqué drunkard jokes, refusing to pander to his audience. And while Haddock’s alcoholism is often played for laughs, he’s also chastised once or twice by Tintin, even if he never gives up the drink.
Much of the film is an excuse for Spielberg to deliver one fantastic action piece after another without regard to pesky things like the laws of physics. There are some fantastic moments, including a battle between two ships during a raging storm and a crash landing in the desert. But perhaps the most thrilling part of the film is a chase through a Middle Eastern bizarre that takes place in a single, long shot. In these moments we see Spielberg eager to play with animation in ways that he can’t in live action. Unfortunately, it’s in the moments between the action that the movie seems unsure of itself. Like a jittery kid on a sugar rush, the movie can hardly sit still for a moment. The film is a series of action set pieces strung together with exposition as epoxy. This means that when the adventure should feel exciting, it sometimes feels exhausting. (I did see the movie in 3D, which may have only exacerbated this problem). This seems to be a problem that’s worse in animated films. With the exception of Pixar, most animation studios feel the need to barrage the viewer with constant noise and unending movement, like they’re shaking a pair of toy keys in front of a baby. Filmmakers need to let these films breath, to find a natural rhythm. Unfortunately, Tintin is no exception to this rule.
The director and film theorist, Sergei Eisenstein wrote extensively about the concept of dialectic, the synthesis of two seemingly opposing elements. We see this in plenty of Eisenstein’s films and, strictly from the point of view of entertainment, the audience is wrenched from one emotional state to another. In his most famous film, Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein precedes the massacre on the Odessa steps with images of celebration of the arrival of the rebellious crew of the Potemkin. The contrast between celebratory citizens and the gory images of innocents being gunned down makes the film that much more compelling. Likewise, an action film, at the very least, needs moments of calm in order to further elevate the moments of gunplay and fisticuffs. Spielberg has done wonders with this kind of contrast in other films. The famous caravan chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, comes after a grueling and atmospheric descent into the Well of Souls. It’s only because we have followed Indiana Jones through a pit of snakes that we are now ready to release all that built up tension by watching him slug some Nazis. These days Spielberg almost always excels when it comes to laying out the action, but he would be well served to pay as much attention to the part of the film where bullets aren’t whizzing by.

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