[Note: This review was written based on a 2D presentation of The Adventures of Tintin as seen on a DVD screener which I freely admit is no way to properly appreciate such a richly visual movie. I probably shouldn’t even run this review, and if I hadn’t liked the film I wouldn’t, but I’ll be seeing it again in a theater tout de suite and I’ll hastily rewrite if needed. Until then, take this review with those limitations in mind and judge for yourself accordingly.]

I’ve never read any of Hergé’s Tintin comics so I can’t say how Steven Spielberg’s rousing motion-capture animated adventure compares, but it works just fine all by itself. If The Adventures of Tintin ultimately feels a little bit empty inside, it compensates with rich visual detail, Spielberg’s usual flair for action set-pieces (here unchained by the unlimited possibilities of technology) and an enjoyably innocent old-fashionedness that surely must be inspired by the original comics. This is truly an entertainment aimed at audiences of every age and one that hits its mark.

The story is based on The Secret of the Unicorn, the 11th Tintin story (serialized between 1942 and 1943) and the first written by Hergé during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. As such, Unicorn emphasizes adventure over the political themes which had characterized the first 10 stories and it’s the logical place for Spielberg and his producing partner Peter Jackson to start their own planned franchise. The rather busy plot follows inquisitive boy reporter Tintin, his dog Snowy and his pal Captain Archibald Haddock as they follow a series of clues leading from a model ship to a dark day in Haddock’s ancestral past. In an adventure that takes them from Brussels, out to sea, to Morocco and points beyond, the trio are followed by the sinister Ivan Sakharine who also has designs on the model ship and who holds a few clues to the mystery himself.

The character Tintin is nicely voiced by Jamie Bell (Jane Eyre, King Kong) who brings a boyish intelligence to the part and delivers iconic Tintinian exclamations like “great snakes!” with straight-faced aplomb. Meanwhile, dripping with a palpable contempt for the red-cheeked young boy threatening to undo all of his carefully laid plans, Daniel Craig is appropriately devilish as Sakharine.  Also good in smaller parts are Simon Pegg (who co-write the screenplay with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat) and Nick Frost as the bumbling, bowler-clad inspectors Thompson and Thomson and Toby Jones as the pickpocket Silk. The best performance though comes from Andy Serkis as the salty drunkard Haddock. His Scottish accented bluster is a frequently funny counterpoint to the more straight-faced Tintin and he winds up being the character who goes through the deepest transformation. Tintin is the instigator, but it’s Haddock who is finally the more interesting and involving character.

Though he doesn’t talk, the dog snowy is surprisingly the most purely enjoyable character. In a year that has featured a number of popular cinematic mutts (Beginners, The Artist, Young Adult), Snowy is easily the liveliest, cutest and smartest of the bunch. The CG seems especially suited to animal characters and the animators have made the most of little subtle dog motions and behaviors to round out a character that cannot express itself with words.

Whether animal or human, the character animations in Tintin are all terrific. Each one is distinct and faithfully rooted in Hergé’s hand-drawn 2D images while also filled out for modern 3D and rendered in stylized but photorealistic motion capture CG animation. There will probably be grousing about the technology’s “dead-eye” rendering of human faces, an obstacle Tintin is not able to overcome, but I have to say I wasn’t really distracted by it. The faces are already exaggerated so the fact that the eyes weren’t quite “real” wasn’t a problem. I will say though that the animators might have been better off by not trying so hard to get the eyes just right. In this case, less reality might have been better.

As good as the expressive character animations are (eyes aside), the real appeal of Tintin is in the sets, the intricately designed backgrounds and the inventively thrilling action sequences. Supporting a plot that is itself rooted in little details, the screen is crammed with visual information. It’s busy, but it never feels cluttered, unnecessary or like random bric-a-brac. There are little visual jokes and bits of business in every frame. They may not be essential, but they feel consequential and the film is worth a second viewing just to see what you might have missed the first time around.

The highlight of it all is an action finale surrounding a downhill chase between most of the lead characters and even a couple of animals. As the action zigs and zags down a hillside, the focus shifts gracefully from one character to another and back again as they all weave in and out, each trying to get a hold of the last clue. While your attention is occupied in the foreground, the other characters who are no longer in focus are still moving around and interacting in the background only to come back into the forefront again further down the hill. At one point I literally had to stop and go back to see how one participant in the chase got from A to B only to discover that it’s all plainly visible in the background to the main action. The chase itself is like a life-sized, multi-piece, moveable jigsaw puzzle on 12 different pairs of roller skates.

It’s all cleverly executed and thrilling, but as fun as it is, there’s still something missing from Tintin. You’re always aware you’re watching pixels manipulated by a computer and there is never any real danger. With live action, there’s a certain thrill to the precision of the orchestration of an action piece, from the camera setups, to the movement of the action in and out of a frame and finally to the dangerous stunts performed by living, breathing human beings. There’s a visceral charge to live action and the consequences seem all the more dramatic even if logically you’re conscious that the whole thing is staged. With animation, it’s all a matter of getting the storyboard down and then anything is possible while nothing is really risked. The action is certainly entertaining, and in Tintin it’s especially well orchestrated, but to this old-fashioned eye it’s also only interesting to a point. Having said that, even live action stunts these days are assisted to varying degrees by computers and it’s simply not a problem for most modern audiences. I doubt the action here will be received any differently.

In the end though, for all its grin-inducing entertainment value, Tintin felt a little bit like a precision wind up toy. You’ll marvel at how all the different moving parts finally fit together and perform their magic tricks, but that’s ultimately all they are: tricks. They’re fun, but they’re also just a little bit empty. Though they’re totally different films, it’s interesting to compare Martin Scorsese’s Hugo to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. Here are two of our finest filmmakers reacting to a new technological toy box in two very different ways. Scorsese, a man not known for being an overly emotional filmmaker, delivered in Hugo possibly his most overtly moving film while Spielberg, a director with a reputation for sentimentality, surprisingly responded with a movie that somehow feels a little bit removed. I wish Tintin had a little more of that Spielberg schmaltz going for it.

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated