When I Was A Boy, Everything Was Right

12/21/2011 4:00 AM |

The Adventures of Tintin
Directed by Steven Spielberg

In the early 80s, when Steven Spielberg heard Raiders of the Lost Ark compared to a Belgian series of adventure comics, he did the same thing any working artist sharing an unwitting kinship of craft and spirit with another might do: he bought the rights. But you don’t need the ordaining origin story—creator Hergé, per Spielberg, loved Indiana Jones—to see the new animated film, about the androgyne adventurer’s search for lost sea treasure, less as a Tintin adaptation than as Raiders redux. The technology and, just as important, the marketability of next-generation motion-capture (i.e., over the tarnished reputation of 3D) allow Spielberg to shoot for the stars, unbounded by physical constraint or, thanks to Hergé’s palatable prewar-world-as-amusement-park wonder, the ooga-booga frights of Temple of Doom.

That’s the pitch, at least (Spielberg ever constrained?) but it’s partly borne out by a sequence that might be called the Dream of the Impossible Take. During a bird-dog-man chase for a piece of paper fluttering through a sheikh’s town fiefdom, the buildings and alleys and waterways all become fair game for a gravity-defying camera-eye that swoops and dips and tumbles. You get a sense of a past pent-up desire for a perpetual-motion mine-car course, fulfilled at last, and so go many of the sometimes strained chases that re-spatialize the original comics. The paper chase, to an extent, is indebted to standard music-video digital doll-housing, but the curse of Rackham’s pirate booty, issued from the midst of a flaming, sinking ship, surges with rare energy.

But as Tintin and lovable inebriate sailor Captain Haddock conduct their a-ha search (with ample pauses to explain said search), to what extent does Spielberg really capture the motion of the original books? (When he’s not busy simulating lens flares or self-referencing Jaws.) The same complaints have been leveled against past CG “advances,” but so long as technological triumphalism continues, it bears repeating: the action in Tintin lacks heft, chance, and hence genuine impact. And, despite the claims that the characters feel lifelike, to these eyes the diligently hue-matched humanoids resembled mascot-heads, on (relatively) proportioned bodies, with Tintin looking at times microcephalic in his head’s tuft-peaked taper. The “voice talent” (Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis et al.) comport themselves as well as can be expected when delivering information that once resided in conveniently skippable bubbles. (Some of the infelicitous style endemic to the original English translations crops up here for some reason too: “They’re on to us and our destination!”).

Strategically released after building up box-office cred in foreign release (and after the end of another book franchise, Harry Potter), The Adventures of Tintin will probably invigorate audiences when chipmunks can do no more. But is Hergé’s anachronistic sense of the exotic even possible anymore, to which the books’ panels were deployed as windows on totemic worlds? Or maybe this is just the familiar case of the malcontent tintinologist, issuing the kid’s and the connoisseur’s lament: “I saw it first.”

Opens December 21