Tintin was a big deal for me growing up. I had every book and read each of them at least a hundred times. I assumed that every kid on the planet loved Tintin as much as I did. The series of comic stories, by Belgian author Herge, were the tales of Tintin, a young journalist whose constant search for a good story often led him to great adventures. There were always colorful (and usually complicated and intelligent) villains, and Tintin’s group of cohorts who would often accompany him on his travels were even more outlandish, including a bumbling pair of Clouseau-type detectives, Thompson and Thomson (the inspiration for the popular ‘80s new wave band Thompson Twins), a crusty, perpetually-drunk but ever-loyal sea captain, Captain Haddock, and, of course, Tintin’s constant companion, his trusty dog Snowy, who rescues our hero on more than one occasion. There was no Tintin without Snowy.
There were 23 adventures in total, and I had every one. I grew up in Germany, and Herge’s comics had been translated, I found out later, into almost every language on the planet, so I was able to find Tintin in the local English bookstore. All my friends read Tintin. His adventures were a common language. I couldn’t imagine life without him.
But when I came back to the States, I found out that Tintin never made it to America. Unlike fellow Belgian comic book writer Peyo, whose Smurfs cartoon characters did cross the pond to find success with American children, Tintin for some reason just didn’t translate. HBO did run a BBC series in the early ‘90s, but it never caught on. So, naturally, when I heard that legendary director Steven Spielberg (and producer Peter Jackson) had signed on to be the one to finally bring my beloved boy reporter to American audiences, I was thrilled. I thought there would be no one better to translate Tintin’s spirit of adventure and show America what they’d been missing.
I was right.
Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin is a jam-packed, energetic and absurdly fun adventure that left me grinning from start to finish. Yes, I responded to the familiarity of the characters and story, but what makes the movie so engaging is its innocence and scope. Tintin is a classic hero—an ordinary guy whose gumption and relentless pursuit of the story gets him into all kinds of trouble and, naturally, adventure. I knew that if Spielberg could capture Tintin’s bravery and goodness, he’d have the world cheering for him. And he does.
The Adventures of Tintin, hopefully the first of many American-made Tintin movies, is based on Herge’s 11th book, The Secret of the Unicorn. In it, Tintin comes across a model ship while at a street fair and falls in love with it. As soon as he buys it, however, he learns that others want the model ship and are willing to pay handsomely for it. Tintin refuses to sell, but all the interest from seemingly nefarious characters gets him curious as to what it is about this model ship that is attracting so much interest. He soon learns that this model ship holds a clue to something greater, and—being Tintin—he just must find out what that is. Great adventures ensue that take our hero (and Snowy) all over the world for all kinds of excitement—and danger. This is truly Spielberg at his Raiders of the Lost Ark best, with action sequences and high-flying chase scenes so eye-popping they will leave you breathless. This is Spielberg unchained by limitations and Spielberg without limitations means limitless possibilities.
Just as Martin Scorsese explored all the possibilities of 3D with his magnificent Hugo, so too does Spielberg explore all the potential of motion-capture technology, a form of animation that works by capturing human movement and transferring it to digital output, where it can be massaged and enhanced for cinematic effect. It is a blend of live action and animation that is particularly effective for action sequences, because stunt restrictions are withdrawn—if you can imagine it, you can create it—and, from a distance, everybody and everything looks so life-like that you feel as if you are watching live actors in a real location doing real things. Spielberg used real actors to play out the scenes and the computer then was able to capture the movements of the actor and insert him into the scene to make it look more realistic. So, the wilder the stunt, the crazier the chase, the more impossible the setting, it’s all possible here. And who better to maximize the possibilities of expanding the imagination than Steven Spielberg?
Sadly, though, while Spielberg has caught up with technology, technology still hasn’t quite caught up with Spielberg. While motion capture technology is exceedingly effective in creating fantastic action sequences, it still has a long way to go in recreating the human face and its emotions and movements. Normally, this wouldn’t be a distraction in an ordinary animated film—you have come to accept that these are cartoons and they will never fully look like a real person. But motion capture technology goes so far in trying to make the characters look as human as possible, it only makes it stand out more how far from human they actually look. Actor Jamie Bell plays and voices Tintin and you can see how much of Bell is in the face of the character, but, unfortunately, the same animation process that allows infinite possibilities for action has not mastered the art of facial expressions and too many times I found myself distracted by the simple fact that Tintin’s mouth wasn’t moving right.
But, in the end, who really cares? Tintin is an outrageously fun two hours in the theatre, worth every penny of that 3D surcharge. I can’t wait to see it again so I can appreciate all the little details in every frame. This is a master at work. This movie is a whirlwind ride for the whole family. There is a lot of action and cartoon violence, so you might not want to take your little ones, but for everyone else, The Adventures of Tintin is a reminder of all movies can be—and all they will continue to become. And that’s not just my childhood talking.