There’s something of a release-date clustercuss going on down at the multiplexes this weekend: you’ve got your regular Friday openers, you’ve got some gun-jumping Wednesday openers, and you’ve got a few traditional Christmas Day Even Though It’s not a Wednesday or Friday openers. Because probably your movie choices will be at least somewhat informed by who you spend the weekend with and possibly not being in New York at all, for now I’ll focus on the movies targeting your whole-family dollars.
The Adventures of Tintin (12/21) and War Horse (12/25): Here’s one of my favorite quirks of Steven Spielberg’s career: every three to five years, he’ll deliver a pair of movies in a single calendar year, usually a big popcorn movie followed by something more serious and with fewer aliens. This started inauspiciously when he chased Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with possible career-worst Always in 1989; his next attempt, with Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List, gave him the highest-grossing movie of the year and an entirely separate Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winner (top that, James Cameron!). He’s at it again with The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, only they’re separated by four days instead of five or six months.
Both movies find the world’s most famous director getting back to the business of Being Steven Spielberg following the gut-punchier War of the Worlds and Munich combo from 2005 (and the brief 2008 tour of George Lucas land—where you deliver a silly, widely-seen blockbuster sequel that “everyone” seems to hate with an overblown fiery passion). No more 9/11 allusions here: The Adventures of Tintin is lighter than Spielberg’s more dystopian popcorn pictures of the past decade (which, come to think of it, were not so much popcorn pictures as really exciting, beautifully designed movies that happened to be science fiction), and in the serious history slot, War Horse is gentler and far less unsparing than Munich or the scariest parts of Saving Private Ryan.
In a way, The Adventures of Tintin is a more successful version of what Spielberg attempted in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; that is, a throwback to the kind of movies he used to love to make (which at the time were throwback so the kinds of movies he used to love), with additional family-friendly cartooniness. Tintin, the boy-man reporter (played by a motion-captured Jamie Bell), embarks on what he seems to consider a newspaper story but is in fact a treasure hunt, partnering with the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) to track down the secret of the unicorn (in this case a ship, not a beast). Basically, Tintin globetrots, runs around, and chases after MacGuffins, accompanied by his trusty and hilarious dog Snowy (not also Andy Serkis, somehow). Instead of wanting to put the treasure in a museum, he wants to write about it for the newspaper that employs him, which I like to imagine is besieged with neverending Tintin filings about this or that buried treasure even after assigning him to the obituaries desk.
I wondered about the wisdom of using motion-capture animation for Tintin—yes, it frees a virtual camera to go virtually anywhere, but knowledge of a camera’s physical limitations can sometimes enhance, not detract from, the kind of virtuosic intensity Spielberg has been known to produce. Put another way: the 360-degree shot around Cruise’s minivan in War of the Worlds is far more exciting than the grander craziness Robert Zemeckis has been able to use in the likes of Beowulf (though, granted, there may be other factors at play there).
But as it turns out, motion-capture is more or less the correct technique for what Spielberg pulls off; unlike Indiana Jones, the broadest stuff doesn’t feel out of place in animation, yet it’s not so cartoony that the action sequences lack weight. The most dazzling piece of Tintin is an extended multi-character, multi-conveyance chase sequence that proceeds in a single crazy take. It would be nigh-impossible to shoot this sequence in live action without giving it a cartoon sheen, but Spielberg somehow emphasizes the gimcrack, slapstick timing of the whole thing, rather than making it another animated whirligig ride (it’s more Brad Bird’s The Incredibles than the DreamWorks Kung Fu Panda pictures—though Bird has fashioned some impressive live-action gimcrackery of his own with the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, almost like he and Spielberg switched jobs for a few months).
That’s the best bit of the movie, but there’s plenty more: big cornball laughs, swell virtual cinematography, and animation that more or less hits the right balance between stylization and human weight, though the faces are a little eerie at first. It’s terrific, lighthearted fun hampered only by a lack of interesting characters besides Snowy, who one-ups that dog from The Artist at every turn. Haddock is amusing enough and has a sliver of a redemption arc, and Tintin is engaging in that bland boy-hero way, but lacks Jamie Bell’s real-life urgency, to say nothing of Harrison Ford’s effortless charm as Indy. Tintin is just a nice eighteen-to-twenty-ish kid who hasn’t yet developed an interest in girls yet (or boys, for that matter). A good thing, too, because there are hardly any girls around in this adventuring universe, and no boys his own age, either.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the nominal human hero of War Horse, is similarly arrested and less charmingly so: isn’t sixteen or seventeen a bit old to be mooning so intensely over a horse? But Joey, the horse in question, doesn’t stay with him, much to Albert’s dismay; he’s sold to the British army and sent off to World War I. It’s at that point, thirty or forty minutes in, that War Horse takes off, too: we follow Joey through various WWI episodes, and meet characters with a little more going on than sweet, innocent, dull Albert. There’s Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) who first takes the horse as his own, and loves the creatures nearly as much as Albert; a couple of German soldiers; and a little French girl who’s always wanted to learn to ride.
With a script co-authored by Richard Curtis, you might think this sounds like Love Actually going to war, but the glimpses into different wartime points of view are affecting and Spielberg, as expected, films the hell out of them (he even makes PG-13-appropriate dodges of hard violence into something more poetic and evocative). As with Tintin, there’s a standout piece: a scene when Joey bolts along the trenches, attempting to escape the war is as visceral and gorgeous as anything in Spielberg’s formidable catalog.
But this isn’t the searching, mournful Spielberg that still managed to create cracking suspense in Munich; rather than complementing Tintin‘s nonstop fun with something correspondingly darker, the two movies lighten in sync: virtuosic action-adventure and harrowing war story made into two of the most family-friendly movies he’s done in years. That’s not to dismiss them out of hand: if a ten-year-old gets taken to see War Horse, think of it as a kid-accessible story about war, rather than WWI dumbed down for the Chipwrecked crowd. But in a sense, both movies feel like expert exercises in Spielbergian filmmaking compared to his most transcendent (and sometimes misunderstood) recent work (mostly his sci-fi). I was moved more by War Horse‘s craft than its story, more by its theory (war chases everyone down) than its practice (…but you can go home again). Still, it’s remarkable to watch a pair of movies that can actually move you with craft. It may pain some cineastes to admit it, but Spielberg practices just what Scorsese preaches (and, yes, practices himself) in Hugo.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (12/21): I admire the way David Fincher has broken out of his three-to-five-year gap pattern in recent years, especially as fellow (if less financially successful) post-90s geniuses Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson routinely take huge breaks between features. So if Fincher wants to make a presumably mega-grossing pulp-thriller adaptation to cap off the ambitious run of Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network, I’ll allow it. At worst, wet get a kinkier version of Panic Room or The Game, right? Not so bad. I’m also hoping—as someone who hasn’t read the books or seen the Swedish movies and doesn’t know much about this property in general apart from the presence of sex, violence, and sexual violence—that this gives us Fincher’s first bona fide kickass lady hero (yeah, Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in Alien 3, but it’s also the only Alien movie where she dies; and yeah, Helena Bonham Carter is pretty awesome in Fight Club but the whole movie is about dudes). It’s all on you, actress I hadn’t really heard of until the first scene in The Social Network.
We Bought a Zoo (12/23): Come to think of it, this Christmas weekend has the best collection of wide-release auteur movies in ages: Spielberg times two; David Fincher; and, yes, Cameron Crowe counts. I’m a fan of all three, but it’s Crowe (at least so far) who fills the perhaps-inevitable letdown spot. I really would’ve liked to like We Bought a Zoo. But I didn’t, and I’m happy to go into thousand-word detail on that in my review.