Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

The two Spielberg movies opening this week represent the two sides of this prodigiously talented but often disappointing director. A mashup of deeply personal themes (mostly boys with daddy issues and/or with no parents in sight) and high-gloss Hollywood technology and tropes, Spielberg’s work seesaws between moving and maudlin. War Horse is gorgeously composed old-school schmaltz, with its relentless score and heroic low-angle shots of blue-eyed heroes against great expanses of sky. But if that stale hunk of cornbread is Spielberg at his most suffocatingly sentimental, The Adventures of Tintin is the director at his best: playful, energetic, and brimming with genuine wonder.

To convert the popular Belgian children’s book character from comic strips and comic books to film, Spielberg chose motion capture, the method used by James Cameron in Avatar and Robert Zemeckis in The Polar Express. Motion capture involves capturing an actor’s movements and then mapping them onto a computer model. That creates a digital character that shares the actor’s body language and facial expressions but can be placed in a partially or completely digitalized setting to do things a real person couldn’t.

What motion capture characters have not been so good at, before this, is looking like anything other than plastic action figures when they’re filmed in close-up. Medium and long shots generally work well, since the characters move like real people, but getting the faces to look alive up close is a challenge that has helped defeat movies like Beowulf.

The faces in Tintin, which was art directed by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, are exaggerated enough to look a little cartoony, and it takes a little while to get acclimated to their distorted features and unnatural smoothness. But once you do, their expressiveness almost makes you forget that dynamo “boy reporter” Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog Snowy aren’t real. Even Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the comically bulbous-nosed alcoholic sea captain they take up with while solving one of the mysteries Tintin is always investigating, is so lovably vivid he seems almost real, though the filmmakers obviously never intended him to look like an actual human being, with his Pinocchio nose and Walter Matthau-squared face.

The Pink Panther-esque opening credits, in which Tintin and Snowy are silhouettes moving against abstracted backgrounds that are sometimes just blocks of saturated color, promises high-energy, creative adventure and nonstop action. That promise is never once broken as the film gallops by, winding up in a brisk 107 minutes.

Another of Spielberg’s apparently parentless boys, Tintin is constantly on the move, fueled by seemingly endless reservoirs of enthusiasm and energy as he copes fearlessly with mysteries, pirates, buried treasure, and chase sequences involving just about every mode of transportation available in the first half of the 20th century. He’s always getting in trouble, but it’s the kind that just makes things more exciting, not the kind that causes nightmares: The deaths are never bloody or explicit, and the bad guys generally turn out to be incompetent.

Not that the good guys are much more impressive. One of the film’s many successful running jokes is Thompson and Thomson, a pair of lookalike Interpol cops played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as literally clueless upperclass twits.

The filmmakers have fun with Tintin’s trademark cowlick, making it move through the water like a shark’s fin when he swims and inching him close enough to the blades of a biplane to give it a trim after he’s knocked out in a crash landing. They also create some lovely transitions between scenes, like when a pair of clasped hands turns into a mountain ridge that our heroes are traveling along, or when the captain starts hallucinating in the desert and we see his vision as the sand metamorphoses into the sea and a great sailing ship cuts through it.

The decision to shoot in 3-D feels less inventive. The device occasionally adds a tidbit of visual interest, much of which involves looking at things through bubble or magnifying glasses, but I would have liked the movie just as much without it.

If War Horse is like one of those ponderously self-conscious live-action Disney films from the ‘50s or ‘60s, Tintin is like a classic Disney animation: lightfooted, kindhearted, and fun for the whole family.

Written for TimeOff

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