In 1929 Belgian artist George Remi (who wrote under the nom de plume Herge) debuted a beloved children's hero in 'comic album' form as a supplement to the newspaper Le XXe Siecle. Instantly embraced by readers young and old, the series eventually became known throughout the word as The Adventures of Tintin (pronounced Tauntaun); reproduced in 50 languages and selling more than 200 million copies worldwide: a publishing phenomenon by most any standard. Herge, who parlayed his fictional character into a successful Tintin magazine, and then an entire studio in 1950, produced twenty-four comic albums, many eventually adapted for radio, theatre, TV and finally, the movies. In many ways, Tintin is a most unlikely hero. Though only a boy, he already has a lucrative career as a reporter, accompanied on his many explorations by Snowy (Milou in French); his ever-faithful fox terrier. He is intellectual and well-rounded, with a probing fascination, yet naive understanding of the world. Critics have often misconstrued Tintin as 'bland'. But what Herge has done is to give his reader a sort of 'everyman' blank slate, allowing us to become Tintin and enter these misadventures through his thought-provoking mind.
Herge, who never quite came around to explaining how his prepubescent, red-headed protagonist evolved at such an early age to live alone, with no parents or even parental heritage to speak of, at least afforded Tintin some adult companionship along the way - most notably, the brazen liquor-soaked Irish mariner, Captain Haddock, the intellectually stimulating/but quite deaf, Professor Calculus (Professor Tournesel in French) and a pair of bumbling detectives, Thomson and Thompson (Dupont et Dupond); a contemporary derivative of Lewis Carroll's Tweedles Dee and Dum. What is perhaps most remarkable about this series, apart from its signature ligne claire drawing style, are its engrossing and meticulous - occasionally clairvoyant - plotlines that span the spectrum of literary genres from action/adventure and thriller/mystery to urbane political/social commentary - always tinged with adroit humor, intelligent insight into the human condition, and great good taste.
And now comes The Adventures of Tintin - the movie (2011); a long awaited, very elaborate, utterly fast paced and occasionally enchanting 'motion capture' experiment from director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson. Both men are long time ardent fans of Herge's work. In fact, following the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Herge and Speilberg began transatlantic talks of translating Tintin to the big screen. Regrettably, their face to face meeting never materialized. As Spielberg and his production partner Kathleen Kennedy were wrapping up on The Temple of Doom (1983) Herge died, leaving their pending project in limbo. Although his widow willingly allowed Spielberg to option her late husband's stories the next year, Spielberg was never entirely satisfied with the script treatments that kept coming down the developmental pipeline.
Furthermore, he feared that the more fanciful aspects of Herge's stories could not be satisfactorily translated into live action. The project was put into turnaround and Spielberg eventually allowed his option to lapse. Then, in 2001 Spielberg announced he would be renewing his option to produce a Tintin film with Dreamworks' computer animation division. Again, the project ping-ponged back and forth as Spielberg toyed with reconsidering live action. To this end, Spielberg contacted Peter Jackson at Weta Digital to inquire about the feasibility of creating a computer-generated Snowy. Jackson, who adored Herge's books as much - if not more than - Spielberg, shot test footage with himself playing Capt. Haddock while a digital Snowy playfully hopped around his feet. But the more both men assessed this footage the more they recognized that such a melding of live action and computer animation simply did not serve the story well.
At this point, Jackson suggest photorealistic 'motion capture' technology as a possible solution. Although impressed with the results, Tintin's creative gestation was once again interrupted. First, screenwriter Steven Moffat became embroiled in the 2007 writer's strike. Afterward, a conflict of commitments to the Doctor Who series precluded his further involvement on Tintin. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish were assigned to do a complete rewrite. Then, Universal Studios (who had initially agreed to co-produce) declined to pursue the project, citing disappointing box office on Monster House and Beowulf, as well as Spielberg's request for his usual 30% of the domestic gross as their reasons. Eventually a deal was ironed out between Spielberg, Jackson, Paramount and Sony Pictures (under the Columbia banner). Paramount had already spent $30 million on Tintin's preproduction, but refused Spielberg's gross percentage request. Sony, however, backed the deal, ensuring that at least the first two films in Spielberg's envisioned Tintin trilogy would come to fruition.
Like all Hollywood interpretations of great literature, the filmic Tintin takes artistic liberties with Herge's work. We are introduced to Tintin (vocal by Jamie Bell) at a Belgian street market, having his portrait painted by Herge himself. Tintin becomes fascinated by a model of the tall ship Unicorn and purchases it from a vendor. Moments later, Tintin is accosted by a mysterious stranger, Barnaby (Joe Starr) who warns Tintin to leave the ship amongst the other forgotten relics on sale. Barnaby's warning only serves to galvanize Tintin's resolve. Ditto for his confrontation with Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who offers Tintin whatever he wants for the model, then breaks into his apartment while Tintin is out to steal it. Before this theft, the model is damaged when Snowy has a minor confrontation with a stray cat. In the scuffle, the ship's mast breaks apart and a tiny metal flask with a cryptic message inside rolls beneath Tintin's dresser.
Meanwhile, detectives Thomson (Nick Frost) and Thompson (Simon Pegg) are 'not so' hot on the trail of local pickpocket, Aristide Silk (Toby Jones). Tintin returns to his apartment to discover it ransacked and the Unicorn gone. But Snowy alerts Tintin to the metal flask under his bureau. Tintin discovers the message inside and tucks it into his wallet, later stolen by Aristide. Venturing to Marlinspike Hall; Sakharine's foreboding country estate, Tintin and Snowy are assaulted by Sakharine's men, Tom (Mackenzie Cook) and Allen (Daniel Mays). They abduct Tintin and Snowy and take them aboard the Karaboudjan - a rusty cargo ship. There, Tintin and Snowy are introduced to another prisoner, Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis) whose men have mutinied against him, thanks to Tom and Allen's goading. Tintin convinces the chronically inebriated Haddock to invest in their adventure, and together these three escape their captors aboard a lifeboat.
The next day Sakharine sends Tom and Allen in a seaplane in search of Tintin and Haddock. But Tintin skillfully shoots the plane down and, with Haddock's assistance, takes Tom and Allen hostage. Making the necessary repairs, Tintin and Haddock fly toward the Moroccan port of Bagghar, but crash land after a storm in the desert. They are rescued by foreign legionnaires. Haddock now regales Tintin with the story of the Unicorn. Haddock's ancestor, Sir Francis, was its captain, assaulted during a sea battle by Red Rackham, Sakharine's blood relative. Sir Francis chose to sink the Unicorn's bounty of treasure in the ocean rather than surrender his ship to Rackham. Now Sakharine is in search of that treasure and the three models of the Unicorn - each containing part of a cryptic message that, once reassembled, holds the coordinates to locating the sunken ship. Sakharine already has the first part of the message. Tintin, the second. But the third remaining piece of the puzzle belongs to a wealthy sheik, Omar Ben Salaad (Gad Elmaleh) - though not for long.
At a lavish reception at Salaad's palace, Sakharine sends his trained falcon to retrieve the model. This results in an extraordinary chase through Bagghar's crowded streets, with Tintin and Haddock eventually cornering Sakharine and his men at the docks - thanks to the last minute intervention of Thomson and Thompson. It seems that, having retrieved Tintin's wallet from Aristide Silk, this bungling pair have inexplicably managed to tail Tintin and Haddock to Bagghar. Reuniting the three Unicorn scrolls, Tintin and Haddock learn that Marlinspike Hall was built by Sir Francis. Returning to the estate, they discover a small consignment of the Unicorn's plunder hidden behind a wall in the cellar. Haddock, now sober and fascinated by his own ancestry, vows to assist Tintin in salvaging the rest of the Unicorn's lost sunken treasure.
The Adventures of Tintin is a mostly enjoyable action/adventure yarn with elements of film noir peppered throughout. From a purely visual standpoint the film is a wondrous, if mildly absurd, amalgam of blisteringly surreal images. What is less successful is Spielberg's hurling his camera about this meticulously crafted computerized realm as though it were a pinball flipped about with nauseating results. We soar up, then down through stormy skies over the ocean, dive deep into the sea during a flashback sequence aboard the Unicorn, and careen with violent abandonment through the streets of Bagghar on a motorcycle. This sort of constantly moving backdrop will appeal mostly to today's generation, weaned on rapidly edited music video pulp and video game nonsense. However, as an artifact of pure cinema the results tend to overpower, rather than excite, our senses.
Perhaps Spielberg has forgotten that 'action' is best explored through the motivations and confrontations between a film's pro- and antagonist - not the immediate result of some manic manipulations of the cinema space through choppy camera work and heavy-handed editing. Mingzhi Lin and Charles Pottier's SFX are first rate, creating three dimensional flesh and blood renderings of Herge's one dimensional cartoon drawings. Yet, in perusing the pages of Herge's comic albums, I was struck by how much emotional content there was in that one dimensional (and simply drawn) world. Perhaps, this is where the books advance over their filmic counterpart.
While the characters in Spielberg's film all look like reasonable facsimiles of Herge's imagination, and move realistically as they should, they somehow never entirely come to life on the screen. Technologically proficient in all their vastly superior detailing, they nevertheless lack that intuitive humanizing quality to truly be believed. The Moffat, Wright, Cornish screenplay brilliantly binds three of Herge's most memorable tales into one cohesive narrative that moves along nimbly and with a genuine feel for its source material. John William's score is epic, yet playfully adventurous, striking just the right chord. The Adventures of Tintin will satisfy most who see it. But it lacks the warmth and charm of Herge's original drawings, and the staying power of a truly classic adventure yarn. Unlike Herge's stories that have endured the test of time, we probably won't be celebrating this film in the next century.
Paramount Home Video's Blu-ray has been given the A-list treatment. We get a beautifully rendered image that extols all the crisp, refined details of this digitally inspired fantasy world. The extraordinary and subtly nuanced palette of textures and colors all look gorgeous and razor sharp. Truly, nothing to complain about here. And you won't find gripes from this critic over the bombastic DTS 5.1 audio that rocks all of the surround channels. We get a series of in-depth featurettes that cumulatively represent one comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Here, you will find an extensive catalogue of all things Tintin - the movie - put together with fascinating insight and interviews from virtually all of the cast and crew. Bottom line: If you're a fan of this film, then Paramount has outdone themselves on ensuring all your needs have been met. But if you're a fan of Herge's Tintin, the final results achieved in this film may occasionally leave you wanting for something more.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)