The best character in Steven Spielberg’s computer animated action film The Adventures of Tintin is the film’s camera, which dashes and careens wildly across every scene and locale with more energy and personality than any of the people it is “filming.” Meanwhile, the worst character in The Adventures of Tintin, unfortunately, is Tintin himself.

I realize I risk offending my large European following with that statement, but I can’t help it. Sure, maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have never read the incredibly popular French comic-book series on which it is based, so I was bound not to be as moved by this new version as anyone who has grown up with the character. But, having now seen the movie, I can understand why writer and artist Herge’s refreshingly simple art style and storytelling techniques are often cited as the book’s main selling points, rather than any in-depth characterization.

The film, a reworked, combined adaptation of three of the comic stories, sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) teaming with the cynical, alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) to find a sunken treasure once belonging to Haddock’s ancestor. This puts them in direct conflict with the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a man with his own mysterious connection to Haddock’s family legacy. The story is a pretty straightforward adventure yarn, full of globe-trotting, clue-collecting and rip-roaring action. But, man, if it isn’t continuously sunk by the cipher of a lead-character at its center.

I know Tintin is a famed, young reporter, simply because the movie tells me so. This is not an origin story – Tintin is already Tintin when everything starts, and we are given no real insight into what triggered his interest in mysteries, or where he learned his impressive deductive skills. In fact, we aren’t really given anything about him – Tintin is one of those frustratingly one-note characters who exists simply as a tool to tell this sort of story. He is incredibly intelligent and capable, always knowing just what to do at any given moment or danger, which in turn makes him incredibly boring. The only moment in the film where he questions himself is immediately revealed to have been done so that Haddock can give him a pep-talk in which he inadvertently shares an important clue – it’s not a real human moment, but rather just a necessary plot device. Tintin is devoid of any distinguishable personality, and – what’s worse – the film masks this by instead saddling Tintin with one of the most annoying traits of any movie character – he is constantly talking to himself in exposition-filled revelations. Maybe that sort of thing is necessary in a comic book, but it doesn’t translate well to movies.

I suppose Haddock, Tintin’s most popular supporting character, fares a bit better – at least he is given actual emotions and personal crisis’s to deal with and overcome (it also doesn’t hurt that he is excellently played by Andy Serkis, still the reigning king of motion-capture performances). But even he can be a little overbearing at times (I swear, if he had said his “blistering barnacles” catchphrase one more time, I was going to murder someone). Really, the most interesting character might be Tintin’s clever and faithful Fox Terrier, Snowy. And not that there’s anything wrong with having a cute, funny dog in a movie like this (I’m all for it), but when that dog is your best character, well, there might be a problem.

But then, I already said the best character was the camera, didn’t I? And that brings me, finally, to the positives of Tintin. Because for all my bitching about the film’s characters and overly-long running time (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that – but this really could have used about 10 or so minutes chopped from the first half), it’s still a film I’d recommend any serious fan of cinema see at least once, and most certainly on the big-screen. That’s because the movie is, without a doubt, a visual masterpiece. Obviously, this motion-capture animation style has grown leaps and bounds since the Polar Express days – here we have characters that manage to look and feel real and alive, even while maintaining a visual link to their more cartoonish comic counterparts.

But even beyond the look of the characters, it is Spielberg’s use of the digital landscape and all the opportunities it affords him that is the real highlight of Tintin. This is Spielberg’s first time playing with this technology (heck, it’s his first animated movie, period), and it’s a total thrill to watch a filmmaker as accomplished as he still find new tricks to play with and – not surprisingly, given his talent – instantly master. The way Spielberg frames and films the action in this movie is a thing of beauty. The action scenes never let up; they are constantly alive and moving, keeping you breathless but at the same time doing so without ever having to resort to that sort of choppy, chaotic editing that has become the norm in this post Michael Bay world (you can always tell what it is going on in these action scenes, even as the camera dips and dives all over the place). There is one sequence in particular – a single-shot chase scene through the streets of Morroco – that I don’t hesitate to call the most thrilling action piece of the year.

I don’t want to come down too hard on this movie – while I’m really surprised I didn’t enjoy it more given the massive talent involved behind the camera (directed by Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat), it’s not aggressively bad or anything. I was just never grabbed by the story or the characters within it, but at least I was always captivated by the images on the screen, and there are a number of exciting scenes that at times make up for the tedium surrounding them. I’m still more or less onboard for the Peter Jackson sequel, though hopeful he will try to inject his lead character with a bit more humor and personality. If nothing else, I at least admire The Adventures of Tintin for the huge leap forward it represents for this type of filmmaking, and for the persuasive argument it makes (knowingly or not) for filming more action movies in this style. I mean, can you imagine a superhero movie or a Jackie Chan style kung-fu film with this sort of camera freedom? C’mon, Hollywood, let’s get to work.

 

 

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