It is interesting how loaded a term Steven Spielberg’s name is at this point. Doubtlessly one of the very greatest filmmakers alive, Spielberg’s canon is so well known that it is a waste of disk space on WordPress’s servers for me to rattle them off. He has been able to touch a cultural nexus, the intersection of mass culture and actual legitimate art, in a way that only folks like The Beatles, Kanye West, Picasso have been able to do. His thrillers and science fiction movies of the 70s and 80s are part of the tapestry of our youth (well “our” if you are my age). What is striking about The Adventures of Tintin is not that it is his first animated piece, or that it is his skillful adaptation of a children’s literary classic – but that it is a “Spielberg movie”, and one realizes with a start just how long it has been since he has actually MADE one of these things. Minority Report and Munich are superb movies, but throwback entertainments they are not. Instead, we have Sean Connery stepping into Bond in 1980, or Michael Jordan scoring 55 points wearing Chuck Person’s number at Madison Square Garden. Okay, okay, it’s not quite THAT good – but it tickles the Indiana Jones receptors just the same.
Tintin is a journalist of some repute in France presumably in some time that is not precisely modern He procures a model ship at a local market after sitting for a portrait (a wink to Herge fans no doubt) and coming home. Meanwhile a pickpocket seems to be working his magic in the crowded square, and of course Tintin’s loyal companion Snowy, is barking to try (unsuccessfully) to get his master’s attention. In any case, while trying to see what his dog wants, Tintin is approached by a couple of shadowy figures who seem very interested in the ship. Despite the sorts of ominous warnings that movie characters immemoriam have neglected, Tintin brings it home, and suddenly narrowly avoids some bullet fire. The model boat breaks and something rolls behind the desk – Snowy seems to have an idea.
Snowy is one of the real delights of the film, and Spielberg takes so much care in producing him. We’ve heard dogs bark in movies like Snowy does, but how often do we hear the animated dog slobber, or that tinny sound that sounds like microphone feedback dogs make as they are entering or departing a whimper? Spielberg doesn’t have to do this – it’s a barely noticeable detail but you appreciate that it’s there. Snowy often times seems like the smartest organism in the movie – and the issues a dog has communicating its brilliance to us luddite humans is felt acutely here. In any case, the model ship and the attempt to take it leads Tintin to investigate and takes him to the Haddock Mansion where he spots another model ship. Could the two be related? Could the need to find the ships result in an adventure where Tintin is trying to outwit the bad guys? Well, that’s entertainment for you.
The movie rushes headlong into the adventures as Tintin, Snowy and a key figure go from land to sea to a quaint notion of a Moroccan port. There are chases, fights and an opera singer with a key power for a key time. All of this is handled with such easy precision that it’s invisible. Spielberg is just such an easy craftsman in putting this stuff together. The animation, of the motion capture sort that was used in The Polar Express is handled here in a way where you just sort of take it for granted. The movie is shot in that crappy 3-D technology, but Spielberg does not linger on it – it makes the chase scenes more visceral, but it is surprisingly unobtrusive and the colors still pop. Spielberg has such command of the medium and storytelling that you end up focused on the latter. The resolution is totally enjoyable in that way that ties up the loose ends and leaves room for umpteen sequels – I almost laughed at how it set the deal up.
If there is a weakness in the movie it might have been the choice to go 3-D motion capture. The movie works and Spielberg is too good to make it a distraction, but the clear line technique of Herge is such a raison d’etre for the book series that abandoning it is a curious decision. Can it be Tintin if you don’t use the drawing style? I don’t know – so Spielberg is not gunning for authenticity on that front. That said, he has created a fun entertainment that is hard not to enjoy and feel like your money and time were not wasted. It’s not his best movie since Catch Me if You Can, but it is his most Spielbergian.