Once in a happy happenstance, a movie that did not particularly appeal to me based on initial descriptions turns out to be surprisingly better than expected. More often, however, I find myself walking out of the theater berating myself for failing to heed my gut in the first place. Alas, The Adventures of Tintin falls into the latter category.
The red flags that I chose to ignore this time around were abundant. First off, I never much liked the Tintin comics in the first place. The iconic, long-running Belgian adventure strip had about as much visual and narrative sophistication as, say, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye, and less in the way of character development. Then there was the queasiness-inducing knowledge that Tintin author/artist Hergé gave the Nazis a pass so that he could go on working undisturbed under the Occupation. Nobody’s talking about that aspect of the story very much, but it strikes me as very strange that the guy who made Schindler’s List turned out to be a closet Tintin fan.
Indeed, it was the fact that this animated action flick was directed by Steven Spielberg and co-produced by Peter Jackson that tipped me in favor of giving The Adventures of Tintin a try. “How bad,” I asked myself, “could a movie by the guy who made The Lord of the Rings be?” Well, not quite horrible, as it turns out; but if I could turn back time, I’d have gone to a different movie that day. I was, shall we say, underwhelmed.
Part of the problem is that, although I’m generally a booster of any and all modern enhancements to animation technology, I really don’t care for the motion-capture style. It works for me when it’s used for specific non-human characters – like Gollum or Dobby or the Na’vi – in an otherwise-live-action film. But when it takes over the look of the whole cinematic experience, as in The Polar Express or Beowulf and now with Tintin, I find it kind of creepy. There’s something about the way that everything in Tintin appears almost photorealistic, right down to the wrinkles in the boy reporter’s sweater, with the sole exception of the characters’ cartoony faces, that unsettled my stomach.
That crawly sensation wasn’t from the 3-D goggles, either; they don’t normally give me a problem. Of several movies made for 3-D that I’ve seen recently, Tintin was the only one where I felt that the new technology had been wasted. The coolest visual effect in the entire movie occurs right in the first scene, where Tintin is browsing a flea market and lingers briefly in front of a display of variously sized mirrors; it’s fun to watch how the animators captured the multiple reflections of bits of the character as he moves slowly past. Other than that, there’s nothing in Tintin that remotely competes with the consistent visual gorgeousness of Hugo.
Worse – and somewhat incomprehensibly in a story that is jam-packed with chases and other action/adventure tropes – Tintin is just plain boring. The narrative feels static, somehow, even when the characters are being kept very kinetic. There is one fairly inspired chase sequence in which a gradually disintegrating motorcycle, suspended from a web of clotheslines, careens above a warren of markets, backyards and alleyways in some mythical Middle Eastern city. It’s as Spielbergesque as Indiana Jones being dragged underneath an armored car (although the airborne venue actually reminded me more of the great hanging assembly-line chase that formed the climactic scene of Monsters, Inc.). And there’s an epic battle of construction cranes that recalls Ripley’s armored wrestling match with the Big Mama Alien at the end of Aliens. But elsewhere in the movie, I often found my attention wandering.
Part of the problem is that no attempt is made at characterization that is more than paper-thin, which is perhaps appropriate for comic strips but does not work so well onscreen. The sole human exception is Captain Haddock, enthusiastically voiced by motion-capture king Andy Serkis. But even the sea captain’s big internal struggle revolves entirely around the question of how long he can put down the bottle. Indeed, the weak joke of his perpetual inebriation is milked to a degree that seems questionable in a movie primarily pitched to small children.
Sad to say, the most consistently interesting character in The Adventures of Tintin is the reporter’s brainy dog Snowy, who instantly spots all the clues and hazards that the blundering human characters miss. He reminded me a bit of the wise, brave and much-put-upon Gromit – and made me wish that I could have been sitting through a new Wallace and Gromit movie instead of the one that I was watching. Maybe next year, when kid-movie season rolls around again. Meanwhile, I’ll be making a point of ignoring the threatened Tintin sequels.