The Adventures of Tintin
A timeless adventure that sadly keeps its distance
A line is drawn.
One of the vast, enduring pleasures of the “Tintin’’ books by the Belgian illustrator Hergé (born Georges Remi in 1907) is his pioneering use of the “clear line’’ drawing style. If you were lucky, you got turned on to the series as a kid - either you got handed “The Secret of the Unicorn’’ in French class or stumbled upon the English translations - and lost yourself in the orderly panels and crisp pen-lines, the storytelling that runs on perpetual motion, the drawings that replicate the real world with fanatically detailed simplicity. The “Tintin’’ books are possibly the greatest works ever created for 10-year-old boys.
With the arrival of “The Adventures of Tintin’’ in theaters today, another line has been drawn, that separating the past of the movies from their likely future. Produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Steven Spielberg (the two will swap hats for the 2013 sequel), the film marks the most convincing use yet of motion-capture technology, in which actors’ movements are translated into data and digitally “clothed’’ by computer graphics artisans. “Adventures’’ nominally stars Jamie Bell as the intrepid young journalist and Andy Serkis as his blustering friend Captain Haddock, but we never see the performers’ actual faces or bodies. Instead, photorealistic versions of Hergé’s beloved characters inhabit a bright, busy European Neverland.
Jackson’s wizards at Weta Digital have even solved - mostly - the dreaded “dead-eye syndrome’’ that plagued earlier motion-capture exercises like “The Polar Express.’’ The landscapes never feel less than hyper-real and the endless possibilities opened up by CGI mean that Spielberg can send his “camera’’ anywhere he wants for as long as he wants. In the movie’s unquestioned highlight - a jaw-dropping chase sequence through a multilevel Arab village - he does just that. Quite simply, “The Adventures of Tintin’’ is a model of modern movie craftsmanship.
It’s also, I’m afraid, rather dull.
The fault lies partly in Hergé’s narrative style, which works brilliantly in a comic book (or a movie serial) but in a feature film not so much. “Adventures’’ is essentially 1943’s “The Secret of the Unicorn’’ with a few nips and tucks: Tintin’s discovery of a coded treasure map in the mast of a ship model leads to a series of chases, kidnappings, fisticuffs, and hair-breadth escapes across Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. The hero’s accompanied by his faithful fox terrier, Snowy - the closest the “Tintin’’ books ever came to a love interest - and by Haddock, a comic blowhard whose fondness for whiskey is entertainingly out of step with our PC times.
Haddock and the story’s sneering villain, Sakharine (Daniel Craig), are descended from 18th-century seagoing rivals, and the movie fluidly interweaves modern-day sequences with red-blooded swashbuckle. You’re grateful for the period flashbacks; without them, Tintin’s escapades would blur together in a high-spirited digital mush. All momentum and no reflection, “The Adventures of Tintin’’ is the latest iteration of the popcorn action genre birthed by “Raiders of the Lost Ark’’ (which itself owes more than it knows to Hergé). The movie never, ever stops galloping forward at the same unvaried pace.
As did the originals, obviously, but you can flip a “Tintin’’ book back a few pages and retrace where you’ve been, or close it for the night, or just lose yourself in the lovely precision of the drawings. “Adventures’’ doesn’t have that same breathing space, and I imagine that kids may start out loving it and grow antsy by the final third.
What’s missing is the warmth that a real-life actor might bring. (Would “Raiders’’ even be “Raiders’’ without Harrison Ford?) “The Adventures of Tintin’’ is a marvel that’s fatally cold to the touch, and it may not even be the filmmakers’ fault. No live actor could play Tintin because Tintin’s not human. Eternally boyish, blissfully asexual, his orange up-do never bending in the breeze, the character is defined by his two-dimensionality. Lacking back story or emotional depth, he exists purely in the moment - that’s his glory and his limitation.
Bell’s performance, way back there behind the bits and bytes, at least keeps the character engaging, which is more than can be said for Serkis’s pig-eyed bore of a Haddock or the bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson - twin Hardys without a Laurel, and ugly to boot. Super-realistic motion-capture CGI doesn’t imitate the real world so much as offer a fetishistically heightened version of it, yet the fact that we can now see and appreciate every pore on Thompson and Thomson’s noses hardly counts as an improvement. Hergé’s was an art of subtraction - of doing more with less - but that seems to have eluded Spielberg and Jackson. Even a 10-year-old boy could tell you they’re out of line.