I ought to be more familiar with Tintin than I am. My local public library’s children’s section had hardbound volumes of all or most of the comics in the series as I was growing up. I could have gone through pretty much the whole run. But I first looked at them when I was still in first grade — perhaps just a bit too young for a series that was aimed more at teenagers. A couple books didn’t catch on with me for whatever reason, and I never went back to them. Instead, I wound up going over and reading a different Franco-Belgian classic comic, Asterix (also aimed at young adults, but more overtly funny to a youngster). I don’t regret reading the Asterix comics for a second (as an adult I can see how brilliant they are), but I do regret passing up on Tintin way back when.
This “almost but not quite” familiarity left me with an odd form of anticipation when Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg came out with The Adventures of Tintin in 2011. I knew what Tintin was, unlike most Americans, but I knew very little more. I knew the general tone of the stories, but not the specifics. I could recognize Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, and Thompson and Thomson… but I didn’t know the characters. Seeing the previews was an odd mix of nostalgia and novelty at the same time. It became one of my most anticipated films of 2011… but as bad luck would have it, I didn’t manage to see it until now. That said, it was well worth the wait.
Amazing what you’ll find when you start looking.
The Adventures of Tintin opens up with a great silhouette-based animated credit sequence, but the majority of the film is animated using CGI. Human characters were done using motion-capture; it’s essentially the same technique as with 2004’s The Polar Express, but with the better part of a decade to improve things, Tintin‘s characters look considerably more alive. There may still be some audience members who find the characters fall into the Uncanny Valley, but on the whole, the combination of motion-capture, skin tones utilizing subsurface scattering, and comic-book-based proportions results in characters that look like cartoonish humans rather than dead-eyed automata. Pixar showed that CG humans could be acceptable if made with traditional cartoon proportions; here Spielberg and Jackson show another approach can work as well. It works sufficiently well, in fact, that I recall hearing from some people who thought it was a mix of animation and live-action.
I can almost understand it in the case of Tintin, but Thomson and Thompson are another matter.
The film simply looks gorgeous. The characters move fluidly and realistically thanks to the motion capture. Hair looks realistic, and the characters not only look good, but seem reasonably true to the comic book appearances — at least, from what I can remember or look up of the books. Backgrounds are beautifully detailed, and I find myself wishing I’d been able to see this in 3D, as it was probably a great use of the medium.
The story, adapted from parts of a few of the comics, is engaging and exciting. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is an investigative journalist who stumbles into a new mystery when he buys a model ship and suddenly finds himself the target of people who seem to be willing to do anything to get their hands on it. His inquiries into why the ship is so valuable lead him to meet and befriend Captain Archibald Haddock, whose voice and motions are performed by Andy Serkis, undoubtedly the best-known motion-capture actor in the business. Serkis brings the drunkard Haddock to life brilliantly, and it’s a good choice to put the veteran actor in the role. Tintin fits into a fairly solid heroic archetype, of the young adventuring investigator persona, but despite being the title character, it’s not precisely his story. It’s Haddock whose family heritage is at the center of the mystery, and it’s Haddock who undergoes all the character growth in the film.
There’s a lot of pressure on a guy who needs a stiff drink to act sober.
In the parts of identical Interpol agents Thomson and Thompson are Nick Pegg and Simon Frost. The comic duo work perfectly as the bumbling detectives; their vocal performances are similar, but just barely different enough to, paradoxically, make it even more confusing to figure out which is which. Between the policemen and Captain Haddock, there’s a fair amount of humor in the film, but its heart is a solid adventure story in the vein of the old pulp action stories (which, indeed, is about the era the first Tintin stories were created in). Daniel Craig rounds out the major cast as another character chasing after the model ship, and provides an energy and sense of urgency to the quest, which takes the heroes on a tour of several Mediterranean locations which are all brought to life beautifully.
The Adventures of Tintin is sometimes funny, often exciting, and always beautiful. I wavered just a bit on how to grade the film, wondering if perhaps the relative shallowness of some characters might warrant lowering it a mark. But I realized as I was considering that I was altogether too curious to find out how different aspects of it were done, how it was written, and all the rest of the details of its creation. The movie didn’t just excite me with its story… it excited me with the movie itself. That’s more than enough to outweigh the minor characterization issues, especially if Tintin himself winds up getting more development in later installments. The next chapter, The Adventures of Tintin: The Prisoners of the Sun, is due out in 2015. I’ll definitely be buying a ticket.
Now… is it too much to hope for that somebody puts a similar level of effort into an Asterix movie?