Over 80 years after the Belgian artist Herge first conceived him, Tintin, the plucky journalist-adventurer whose stories have sold over 350 million books worldwide, has finally got his own big-budget Hollywood movie. The Adventures of Tintin is already a runaway hit in Europe, where it opened in late October (some eight weeks ahead of its U.S. release) and where the character enjoys the bulk of his popularity. But while most Americans have never heard of Tintin, they’re undoubtedly familiar with the name of Steven Spielberg, who, after directing 24 live-action features, makes his 3D-animation debut with the rollicking action-adventure.
The film is set in the early-middle 20th century in an unnamed European town. Though his spiked widow’s peak and baby-faced visage peg him at no older than 16, the titular Tintin (Jamie Bell) is already a respected newspaper reporter and something of a neighborhood celebrity. (He also lives alone and owns a handgun — quite an accomplished young lad indeed.) The chance purchase of a model boat leads him to a mystery involving a treasure-laden ship that was lost at sea over three centuries prior. Together with his trusty dog Snowy and a drunken sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis), he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure that pits him against a nefarious figure named Sakharine (Daniel Craig).
Like the Indiana Jones blockbusters it’s so clearly crafted to evoke, The Adventures of Tintin is cutting-edge filmmaking with an old-fashioned ethos. Spielberg’s gift for spectacle hasn’t diminished one iota with his transition to animation. The inexorable march of technology and the constant bar-raising of the 3D-animated genre has schooled us to expect dazzling color and detail, and Tintin dutifully delivers on that front, but what impressed me most about the film is the cinematography, which is nothing short of astounding. Liberated from the physical constraints of the live-action realm, Spielberg and his longtime director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, deliver shot after shot of breathtaking scope and complexity.
Such freedom of imagination has its drawbacks, of course. I grew tired of the filmmakers’ fondness for reflected images. They’re found everywhere in the film — on mirrors, windows, eyeglasses, bottles, and anything else translucent or shiny. Moreover, story is reduced to a secondary role in service of the film’s elaborate set pieces. And Tintin himself, for all his exploits, is an unremarkable protagonist, his only distinguishing features a determined optimism and a MacGuyer-like ingenuity.
The Adventures of Tintin was made using a “performance-capture” approach of the type pioneered by Robert Zemeckis, which might bring alarm to those who recall the infamously dead-eyed characters of Polar Express with disdain. The technology has come quite a long way since those rueful early days. The characters in Spielberg’s film possess a vitality and expressiveness that signal the much-maligned “uncanny valley” could soon be a thing of the past.