When RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was released all the way back in 1981, some reviews compared the swashbuckling, grave-robbing exploits of Indiana Jones to a relatively obscure European cartoon named THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Curiously enough, the cartoon’s author, Herge, had pegged director Steven Spielberg as the only filmmaker he felt could do his creation justice on the big screen. Spielberg himself was drawn to Tintin’s adventures after the Indy reviews piqued his curiosity, and this mutual lovefest eventually resulted in Spielberg buying the rights to the property in the early 1980’s. Active development on a film version began as early as 1984, but Spielberg’s other, more immediate projects pushed it out of his mind.
In the late 2000’s, Spielberg was inspired by what filmmaking colleague Robert Zemeckis had done with motion-capture animation for his film THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). What initially began as a technical inquiry about the technology with LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY director Peter Jackson unexpectedly blossomed into a full partnership on the project. The two men struck an agreement that they would both produce, with Spielberg directing the first film and Jackson directing a planned sequel. They settled on the motion-capture animation concept, and set to work realizing the iconic Tintin character for a new generation of moviegoers. Spielberg’s first foray into animation and 3D technology was relatively painless, as he shot the motion-capture elements in as little as 31 days while Jackson supervised via webcam. The finished product, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, was released in the winter of 2011 to modest box office performance (the character wasn’t as popular domestically as he was overseas), strong critical reviews, and lots of praise from the audiences that bothered to go see it in cinemas. Spielberg had another crowdpleasing winner on his hands, which must have felt like a relief after the public shaming of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008).
The time and location of THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN isn’t specified, because it’s not the point. It’s supposed to be old-fashioned and modern at the same time. The effect is truly timeless, which a movie such as this needs to be in order to work. The film concerns the adventures of Tintin (Jamie Bell), a boyish European journalist, who buys a model replica of a Victorian-era warship named The Unicorn. For unknown reasons, he finds that several outside forces desire that same replica after he comes home to find his apartment ransacked and the model stolen. As he cleans up, he finds a hidden scroll (that fell out of the model and rolled under the dresser)– a scroll that contains clues to the location of a hidden treasure. As he follows the clues, he comes into contact with the nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who is in pursuit of the same treasure. He’s stolen a freight ship and kidnapped its’ captain, a boorish drunkard named Haddock (Andy Serkis), who TinTin encounters after stowing away. They escape, and the race is on to find the treasure.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN boasts an impressive cast, but since this is animation, we don’t get to see their faces. Spielberg instead adapts Herges’ distinctive caricatures into a photorealistic setting, giving them wrinkles and even individual hairs while still retaining their cartoonish features. Jamie Bell voices Tintin, having been recommended by Peter Jackson after their work together on the remake of KING KONG (2005). He ably projects the boyish, determined, and friendly demeanor required of the role, like a European, family-friendlier version of Indiana Jones.
Andy Serkis was also recommended by Jackson for Captain Haddock, the drunk Irish sea captain with a noble ancestry. Serkis is a pioneer of motion capture performance, having provided his services as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY as well as Caesar the ape in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011). His character of Haddock resembles Peter Jackson, especially when we flashback to his ancestor, the proud captain of The Unicorn.
Daniel Craig plays the snobby, serpentine villain Sakharine in his second performance for Spielberg. Like Haddock resembling Jackson, Sakharine resembles a cartoonish Spielberg, which is amusing to watch as the film plays out. Having two key characters resemble the two directors involved with the project can’t be a coincidence… it has to be a fun little in-joke they tossed into the mix. Right? Am I the only one that noticed this?
British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were enjoying a career breakout on the heels of SHAUN OF THE DEAD’s (2004) success, so it makes some sense that they were recruited for a mainstream project with European sensibilities. They play a pair of bumbling Scotland Yard detectives named Thompson and Thomson. Diminutive character actor Toby Jones rounds out the cast as Silk, an anxious pickpot.
Because THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is a computer-animated film with no need for traditionally-photographed elements, Spielberg has to (out of necessity) embrace digital filmmaking for the first time in his career. Instead of serving as director of photography, Janusz Kaminski was brought on as a lighting consultant to help the animators achieve a noir-influenced visual style. The digital/virtual environment allows Spielberg to really go hogwild with camera movement. He can swoop in, out and through elements with reckless abandon since there’s nothing to physically block his way.
For a film that’s entirely computer-generated, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is startlingly photo-realistic. And it’s not just the static set textures, it’s the organic elements such as hair and skin that show a marked improvement over previous “mo-cap” films like THE POLAR EXPRESS or BEOWULF (2007). The telltale vacant look in the eyes of computerized characters isn’t as noticeable in this film, mostly because Spielberg and company fully embrace the cartoonish aspects of their aesthetic. I almost had to pause and catch my breath in a few instances—we’ve come so far since the heady days of JURASSIC PARK (2003), when we found we could convincingly realize dinosaurs licking spoons.
John Williams is once again on music duties, riffing with a jazzy, midcentury Euro sound. It’s not an entirely standout score amongst Williams’ work, but it’s effective for the narrative’s purposes. The music has hint of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) flavor to it, a conceit that’s echoed in the Saul Bass-inspired, graphic art-animated opening sequence that calls back to a similarly-executed title sequence in the jet-set con-man comedy.
Despite being a radical departure from traditional Spielberg films by its nature as an animated work, he’s able to artificially implement several of his signature conceits into THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. There’s low angle/child’s eye perspectives, lens flares, the awe/wonder shot, and even the return of the shooting star trope that marked his first few features. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg film without a sequence involving aviation. TINTIN is no different, featuring a high-flying airplane battle over the high seas. Some tropes, like the estranged father/son dynamic, are almost entirely absent—but then again, the nature of his collaboration with Peter Jackson means that Spielberg can’t claim total authorship with the film.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN affords Spielberg several opportunities to branch out and acquire new skills. This is the first film that Spielberg and frequent editor Michael Kahn ever assembled together with the nonlinear Avid editing system, and not the traditional flatbed setup that they so fervently adhered to in the past. This is also the first time that Spielberg has worked in the 3D format. When composing shots for his previous works, he’d look at the scene with one eye closed to approximate the flattening perspective inherent in film. However, here he is able to keep both eyes wide open as he composes for three dimensions. The utilization of 3D in TINTIN benefits from Spielberg’s direction, as he uses it as a vital storytelling tool and not just some marketing gimmick. Granted, I didn’t see the film in 3D, but I can imagine what the experience must’ve been like. Animated films are better suited to the format and often make for highly entertaining experiences. I have no reason to believe TINTIN was any different. I don’t know if Spielberg’s experience with 3D was transformational enough for him to adopt the format again, but it’s clear that his unfamiliarity with it didn’t hinder his natural talents as a storyteller.
I initially stayed away from THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN when it was released. Going off the marketing materials, it simply didn’t appeal to me. But sometimes I can be a pretentious bastard. I was pleasantly surprised by the film, with “surprise” being a ridiculous reaction considering the overall quality of Spielberg’s filmography. It’s modest performance and strong critical appraisal bodes well for a future franchise, but for now we have one more rollicking, albeit minor, entry in Spielberg’s body of work.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.
Produced by: Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish
Lighting Consultant: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Jeff Wisniewski
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams