By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011
Word has it that the Belgian cartoon artist Herge was thrilled at the prospect of having his most famous creation, Tintin, brought to life by Steven Spielberg. Tintin, of course, is the young red-haired journalist who has charmed generations of readers with his mystery-solving exploits since Herge introduced him in 1929, especially in Europe, where millions of kids have avidly followed Tintin and his terrier, Snowy, in newspapers and comic books.
Sadly, Herge isn't around to see "The Adventures of Tintin," Spielberg's crisp, richly rendered animated adaptation, which could be counted as both a success and a failure. Spielberg has brought Tintin to the big screen all right, but not quite to life.
There's no doubt that "The Adventures of Tintin" looks splendid, although Spielberg has jettisoned the bold, simple lines and flattened dimensions that were Herge's signature. From the film's opening sequence, when Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) and Snowy find a rare model ship in a crowded outdoor flea market, every frame is jam-packed with gleaming surfaces and beguiling reflections, with Spielberg deploying 3-D motion-capture technology to create impressively lifelike movement on-screen.
No sooner does Tintin barter successfully for the ship than two men try to steal it, those mysterious encounters eventually sending Tintin and Snowy on an adventure that will take them from Europe to the high seas and eventually to North Africa. The story really gets rollicking, fans of the comic books know, when Tintin meets Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a dipsomaniacal seafarer who joins Tintin's quest to find out why so many people are interested in his little model boat.
Spielberg, working in harness with producer Peter Jackson (who's slated to direct the next "Tintin" installment) harks back to his "Indiana Jones" days throughout much of "The Adventures of Tintin." It possesses the boisterous, busy pacing of a movie desperately trying to distract viewers from the story's endless convolutions, which offer diminishing returns as they pile up. (Tintin spends a great deal of time talking either to himself or to his dog by way of explanation, never a good sign.)
Granted, the filmmakers engage in some wonderfully clever staging - like the rolling back-and-forth of a sleeping berth on Haddock's ship, or a pair of hands turning into the sand dunes of the Sahara - and they don't stint on picturesque detail, from the pores on Haddock's booze-reddened nose to the subtle lights glinting from Tintin's ginger quiff. But even at its most visually ingenious, "The Adventures of Tintin" remains an oddly airless affair, with Tintin smoothly sailing through perils that run a gamut from dire to amusing, often greeting them with a "Great snakes!" or other wholesome exclamation.
In fact, Tintin's paragon-like perfection is so unassailable that it begins to grate. Haddock, for his part, is more interestingly flawed, although it's difficult to predict whether younger viewers will completely understand the implications of his alcoholism, presented here with an occasionally tone-deaf combination of humor and forthrightness.
Between all the flashbacks, close calls, urgent music and swooping cameras, there's a lot going on in "The Adventures of Tintin," but precious little is really at stake. And the film's motion-capture technology, while impressive, is almost too silkily seamless, making all the hectic action on-screen seem oddly cold and distant. It takes more than flawless production values and professionalism, it turns out, to create a genuinely compelling emotional experience. On the surface, "The Adventures of Tintin" is unimpeachable, but the surface is where it stays. That's why, when all the chases, fights, stunts and standoffs are over, it's ultimately no great snakes.