Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (Paramount/Columbia, 2011)

This movie, for all of the mega-name cachet lent by the team of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, is apparently finding it difficult to draw anything much beyond gnats at the American box office. It is a crying shame. Though it emphasizes frenetic action at the expense of subtlety and mashes together several of Herge's TINTIN albums in a somewhat cavalier manner that is sure to distress the more demanding of Tintinologists, The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous distillation of many of the elements that have made Herge's creation one of the most popular and easily recognized comics icons in the world. With or without the assistance of 3-D (Nicky and I chose to experience the film sans glasses), the motion-capture technology that the film uses to create the look of Herge's characters and "universe" does nothing less than bring the distinctive world of Tintin to life. What the characters actually do in said world is a little more problematic... but only a little.

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In order to provide proper introductions to Herge's main characters, Adventures combines elements from THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (the quest to find a sunken treasure) and THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAWS (the introduction of Captain Haddock, Tintin's perpetual partner in adventure). This is a natural pairing in that the sunken treasure was being carried on a ship helmed by Haddock's equally blustery, equally bibulous ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock. The movie goes one step beyond this by turning the conniving antiques collector Sakharine (Daniel Craig) into an outright villain and a descendant of the pirate Red Rackham, who put a curse upon all Haddocks after Sir Francis blew his own ship to kingdom come rather than let the buccaneer get the treasure. This allows for a key element in the original UNICORN -- Captain Haddock's lengthy telling (and acting out) of the tale of Sir Francis and Red Rackham to Tintin -- to be integrated into the story proper in a more imaginative manner. Likewise, the decision to change the coordinates designated by the three scrolls hidden in the masts of the model Unicorns from the location of the actual treasure to that of the ancestral Haddock estate, Marlinspike Hall, allowed Tintin and Haddock to finish what was originally part one of a two-album adventure (the second part being RED RACKHAM'S TREASURE) on a satisfying "up note" (finding the small portion of the treasure that Sir Francis had managed to salvage) and open wide the door for this movie's planned sequel. The purists may wince, but I thought that these changes made more sense than, say, some of the additions and deletions that Peter Jackson made in his version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As regards the sheer amount -- and the nature -- of the action packed into Adventures, I'm inclined to side with the purists. To be sure, Herge included plenty of derring-do in his albums, but he never went so far as to feature a battle between a hero (Haddock) and a villain (Sakharine) using ship's winches. (Spielberg is a well-known Carl Barks fan, so I wonder whether he might have had Donald and Scrooge's famous steam-shovel fight from this story in mind.) Likewise, Spielberg isn't content to mount a mere "chase scene" during which heroes and villains scrap for the scrolls in the streets of the Moroccan port of Bagghar; no, the sequence must include Tintin literally flying through the air in hot pursuit of Sakharine's pilfering pet falcon and a local hotel literally being dragged down to the dockside (whereupon the proprietor puckishly adds an extra star to the place's Michelin rating). Most disturbingly, the mania for action allows for the inclusion of wildly improbable stunts that Herge, with his keen sense of the difference between the plausible and the implausible, would never have countenanced. Thus, the desert plane crash from THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAWS is presented with computer-enhanced panache, but it ends with Haddock literally being whipped around and around by the propeller and an unconscious Tintin lying directly on top of the plane's engine without having his face burned. Viewers who are encouraged to read the original albums may be surprised to learn that such Perils of Pauline-style close shaves were the exception, rather than the rule, and that most of the actual physical danger was of the "someone knocks you out from behind with a blackjack" variety. (Not that we don't see some of that in the movie, as well. Spielberg is nothing if not thorough in his overkill.)

I was originally dubious when I heard that Adventures was going to rely on "mo-cap," with its inherent quotient of creepiness. But Adventures is nowhere near as weird-looking as, say, The Polar Express. Those unfamiliar with Herge will need a bit of time to get used to the stylized looks of the characters, but the decision to "start slow" (with the flea-market scene from the beginning of THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN) allows "newbies" to settle in a bit. Thankfully, no attempt whatsoever is made to include any modern technology or slang -- the forbidding opera singer Bianca Castafiore's reference to Bagghar as part of "The Third World" is the only true misstep -- and, though the characters are made to sound British, the setting and atmosphere of Tintin's home town are those of the somewhat generic "Europeville" so familiar to Herge's readers. The depictions of the main characters are also straightforward, eschewing cheap attempts to make them seem "relevant" or "cool" for the 21st-century audience. Tintin (Jamie Bell) remains his trademark bland, albeit courageous and admirable, self. Haddock (Andy "Gollum" Serkis) gets a noncanonical Scottish accent that, it must be admitted, seems to fit the character's bombastic nature quite well, and Haddock's trademark weakness for drink is, thankfully, not glossed over or eliminated. And Tintin's faithful terrier Snowy is... well, simply adorable. One does miss the verbal asides that Snowy tossed to the audience (like a bone??) once in a while in the albums, but Snowy gets plenty of funny, character-building bits anyway, mostly relating to his loves of (1) food, (2) bones, and (once he is introduced to it) (3) whisky.

The Adventures of Tintin, on balance, fully justifies Herge's wish (expressed shortly before the artist died in 1983) that Spielberg should someday get the chance to work with his characters. The failure to "prepare the groundwork" for the movie's American debut, however, is to be sincerely regretted. The movie is doing extremely well abroad, so we're bound to see the search for Red Rackham's treasure reach American theaters at some point. Perhaps by that time, positive word of mouth will have done the job that Paramount, Columbia, and other involved parties failed to do here.

4 comments:

Jasper Y. said...

Glad you enjoyed it, as this movie seems to be pretty polarizing. All I can say is: "bring on the next one!"

Chris Barat said...

Jasper,

You can say that again. I am dumbfounded at the antics of a fellow on the iMDB message board who seems to have declared a critical "jihad" against this movie. Ostensibly, he is objecting to the fact that it is not a literal transcription of the original comic album. Those changes, I didn't really mind, though the inclusion of Castafiore was probably unneccessary. Like, say, the X-MEN movies, this film had to introduce the characters to us AND tell an interesting story. And so it did.

Chris

Jasper Y. said...

Well, there's your problem. The IMDb message boards are rarely a good place to find thoughtful discourse.

Ryan Wynns said...

This movie [...] is apparently finding it difficult to draw anything much beyond gnats at the American box office.

I had wondered if that would be the case. In spite of the Tintin books always being kept in stock at Barnes and Noble, Border's, etc., and a friend of mine who works at a grade school telling me that a number of the kids devour the books, I was pretty sure that the "brand" wouldn't have much recognizability with the American public at large.

I was originally dubious when I heard that Adventures was going to rely on "mo-cap," with its inherent quotient of creepiness. But Adventures is nowhere near as weird-looking as, say, The Polar Express.

That's good to hear. In the trailers, I found the appearance of the characters offputting, but still having not seen the movie, I've remained open about the motion-capture, as I know it's a possibility that it would seem "natural" once one found themself absorbed in the story's momentum.

Still, I maintain that, if they really wanted the characters to have the same features that they do in Hergé's stylized drawings, then trying to simultaneously have them appear as "realistic" at best is foolish! Either see the movie through as one that's completely, "genuinely" animated (whether traditionally or Pixar-esque), or as straightforward live-action (well, with special effects and fantastic landscapes being courtesy of CGI, as is par the course in this day and age), and leave the portrayal of the characters up to the actors that have been cast! Don't go half-way, waffling between the two methods; choose one, and commit, Hollywood producers! :D

And yet, given the Barks homage in Raiders of the Lost Ark and that I feel Barks to be only a couple shades removed from Hergé, it gives me a certain comfort that Spielberg helmed this movie, because it seems a given that he respects and understands the property.

As I mentioned, I still haven't seen the movie -- first, I want to read all of the Tintin comics (to date, I've read the first seven), or at least the ones that this movie was based on. From the trailers, as a light-hearted and whimsical, yet high-stakes and big-stage, fantasy-adventure movie, it looks like it inevitably will deliver. Still, I don't know if I'll ever be able accept these motion-capture mutant versions of Hergé's characters! But your review is very affirming and reassuring.

Ryan