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January 27, 2012

New Movies: The Adventures of Tintin

There were two movie adaptations in the latter part of 2011 that our family was particularly excited about. The first, Hugo, based on Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was a lot of fun and has just garnered a bunch of well-deserved Oscar nominations. But we finally saw the second—the Steven Spielberg–Peter Jackson collaboration to bring HergĂ©'s boy reporter Tintin to the screen—and it’s even more fun, and captures the feel of its source material better, too.

The film takes its plot mainly from two sequential Tintin books from the 1940s, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, in which our hero helps his comrade Captain Haddock discover and recover a bountiful inheritance from a 17th-century ancestor. It also takes bits and pieces from other books in the series, most notably swiping the extended first encounter between Tintin and Haddock from The Crab with the Golden Claws (in the books, the pair are old chums by the time of The Secret of the Unicorn). Some characters who aren't in the Unicorn storyline at all show up here (Bianca Castafiore), while others who are in these books are kept up the filmmakers' sleeves, presumably for further cinematic adventures (Professor Calculus).

By now it's probably clear that I was obsessed with the Tintin canon as a child, reading the whole series over and over endlessly; it's been heartwarming to see my older son have much the same reaction. But naturally, this lent a bit of anxiety to our anticipation of the film—would they screw it up? Hollywood's track record on top children's books is mixed at best, after all. (Exhibit A: The Golden Compass.) And even in today's age of technical wizardry, adapting graphic novels of any kind well seems to be particularly tricky. (Exhibit B: Any Alan Moore adaptation.)

Then again, this project was produced by Jackson, whose creation of the onscreen Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies via motion-capture with the actor Andy Serkis (who plays Haddock in Tintin) was nothing short of revelatory. Plus, that same motion-capture technology was used for all the characters in the Tintin film, with the surroundings computer-generated around them. And the film's director was Spielberg, whose career has obviously cut a much broader swath in the years since, but who first made his name as one of the greatest action-adventure moviemakers of all time. So the adaptation was in good hands, at least.

It shows. My first impression was that the filmmakers are long-standing Tintin fans who get, deep-down, what the books' fans love about them. Like them, the movie is an old-fashioned adventure story, in which we follow a likable, determinedly optimistic hero through a series of thrilling perils. (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps isn't a bad comparison, if you're looking for live-action ones, but it's a type they definitely don't make much anymore.) Also like the books, Tintin moves fast, from exotic locale to exotic locale and from action sequence to frenetic action sequence.

Here, you can almost feel Spielberg's joy at the chance to satisfy with technology any lingering cravings he didn't get out of his system in the Indiana Jones movies (for fear of killing Harrison Ford's stunt doubles). The extended sequences are as breathtaking, somehow, as any live-action ones I can remember, perhaps because Spielberg keeps pushing the envelope on how outlandish they can be. They are also, I must say, by far the best use of the faddish 3-D technology I've seen yet. (I found the 3-D in Hugo mostly either distracting or forgettable; here it adds to every action sequence, in an entirely integrated way.)

Surprisingly, the many alterations from the plot of the two books didn't bother me at all, even though many are significant—Tintin and Haddock's not knowing each other at the start; the transposition of the antagonist's role from the nefarious Bird brothers (nowhere to be seen in the film) to the collector Sakharine (a completely innocent fellow victim of the Birds in the books). I think it's because Spielberg and the screenwriters establish so well that they get the source material that you're willing to go with the changes. Also, the changes work structurally; in some cases even I had to go back to the books to figure out exactly what they were.

Before seeing it, I read some reviews of The Adventures of Tintin that complained about its impersonal nature and lack of depth (of the metaphorical, not 3-D, variety). Now, I find myself bewildered by those criticisms. There is a separation from the hyper-real in the film, certainly, but it's not as if the books' illustrations were exactly Gray's Anatomy either—just look at Tintin's iconic cowlick, for starters. And while there remains, even amid the increasingly lifelike qualities of cutting-edge CGI, an occasionally creepy sense that the "people" onscreen are, simply put, not living beings, I forgot about it pretty quickly once the story got going and pulled me in.

Another complaint I read was from critics who wanted to know more of what these characters are about, what Tintin wants. Yes, Tintin is something of a cipher, on the page and onscreen as well, despite Jamie Bell's strong motion-capture and voice work. He's completely asexual—credit or blame the times of his creation if you like>—and his only "drive" seems to be to do good deeds and seek exciting new adventures. But certain kinds of stories aren't really about character, and I'm downright grateful that Spielberg didn't try to add new layers to the boy reporter. Backstory for Tintin would be as absurd as it would be for Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup.

It's the supporting characters that have always been the lifeblood of the Tintin books, in terms of added dimension. And here they're fleshed out quite well by their creators, especially Serkis as Haddock (whom I'd never thought of as a Scot, but it works) and Daniel Craig, who portrays the bad guy with a versatility—there's an effete quality I certainly never associate with Craig's physical presence—I didn't know he was capable of.

I can certainly see why someone who has always been able to take or leave the Tintin books might feel much the same way about the movie. But I think fans of the books will grin wildly all the way through it, as Dash and I did, and less partisan moviegoers (if my wife and our three-year-old are any indication) will have a pretty exhilarating time, too.

And it is one of those movies to see on the big screen if you can—try to catch it while it's still on one!)

[Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this! I'm glad I found it. My friend says the Tintin books were fantastic and now with the movie out I'm even more curious! I will definitely put them on our list of books to get this year. I think we'll read them first. Right now we just started 'The Little Prince' It's FANTASTIC! And I'm only on chapter eight. Why did I not read these stories when I was little?? :)