The Beauty of Animated Tintin

Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, Based on The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé
Produced By: Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Edited By: Michael Kahn
Music By: John Williams

Distributed By: Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures
Budget: $135 million
Runtime: 107 minutes

Rating: 8/10

This winter seems hard-pressed to not disappoint us, or at least me, as The Adventures of Tintin proves to be yet another remarkably fun, entertaining, while at the same time cinematically provocative film from all fronts. It’s a good story, strong acting (and despite being animated it’s not just voice acting but performance-capture), amazing character animation, and some action sequences that prove there are limitations to what live-action can provide. In the end, Tintin is a strong family film for the holidays that is well worth the ticket price, even more so in 3D.

[Warning: this review contains mid-level spoilers for the film.]

Steven Spielberg’s (and really Peter Jackson’s, too) latest film is based on the comic adventures of Tintin by the Belgian artist Hergé, following the adventures of the teenage detective solving crimes Hardy Boys style. I can’t testify as to the film’s authenticity to the original work, but from what I’ve read and heard from fans it is a fitting adaptation that hits all the right points. Still, others disagree, as I have talked about already. We’ll focus on what can be discussed, which is this film by itself. It follows Tintin and his dog Snowy as they are pulled into the mystery of the Unicorn ship, leading them from an ocean barge, where they meet Captain Haddock in a ridiculously hilarious drunken stupor, to a vast wasteland of a desert, to the fictitious Moroccan port of Baggah and back to the European town they originated in. In other words, it’s a textbook well-executed treasure hunt from setting to setting until finally coming full circle for the climatic resolution and discovery. Along the way you’re given all the mystery, action, comedy, and adventure you would expect, and all of it is in Spielberg’s top fashion, which is admittedly hit or miss, but this time hits.

Let’s start with the obvious thing to critique: the animation. It’s spectacular. While for the most part you remain aware throughout that this film, this world, and all its character are wholly computer-generated, there are moments where the lines begins to blur. Certain angles of lighting on Tintin, the villain Sakharine, or notably an excellent homage character to Hergé in the beginning really make you question how realistic these characters are. People debate over whether the characters cross into the Uncanny Valley of how lifelike artificial characters look, and I won’t go as far as to say I was ever creeped out, but I certainly took note of how oddly real they were. Yet, at the same time, there are characters like Haddock who are clearly animated and entire sequences that look in no way like live-action. This is not to say they are poorly animated, nothing in this film is poorly animated, but rather Spielberg remembers it is the animated legacy of Tintin that makes the character so popular and memorable, and this is a legacy to stay true to.

I’ve heard it remarked why computer animated needs to look so realistic, as if animated should either be a highly stylized rendition or a live-action shot and that the two worlds do not blur. This is untrue, but Spielberg gives us a chase sequence in Tintin as perfect example of how to use the benefits of all mediums. Spielberg knows action. Just watch the Indiana Jones films or any other films with chase sequences. He knows how to balance several characters performing separate actions at the same time and keep the viewer not only aware of everything going on but interested and hooked into the intensity of it all. In Tintin, there is an extended chase sequence in Baggah between Tintin, Snowy, Haddock, Sakharine, his henchman, and his mean raven that literally starts at the top of a mountain, travels around a water dam, through an entire Arabian port town before finally ending at the docks. It’s a long sequence where the characters frequently separate and join back up as they chase each other for procession of three scraps of paper that are, of course, also going off in different directions.

It’s complicated. What’s so special about this sequence besides being a fun chase? I don’t know whether it’s actually one single shot, but if not it’s only a few shots because I cannot remember a single cut in the action. Spielberg himself has admitted that sequences like this would not and are not possible in a live-action setting. Why? The size of the set, for one, unless you wanted to try to go all green screen, but films like Speed Racer suggest audiences don’t like that. Even if you could build/find a set large enough to hold all of the pyrotechnics and mechanisms needed to move entire buildings, you would literally have one chance, and no producer on the planet is going to risk money on every single actor and every single crew and piece of machinery going off without a hitch to fund a sequence like this.

This isn’t live-action, though, it’s animated. Which means Spielberg can shoot the sequence in as many shots and takes as he wants and then blend them together to create a seamless, intense, roller coaster of a chase sequence. Animation allows you to put the camera places you couldn’t if constrained by real world physics and limitations, but it also allows you to retain an incredible sense of realistic style to that animation. It’s just fantastic: from a sequence in the middle of the ocean to the middle of the desert, Spielberg shows us you can do basically anything you want exceptionally well in the animated form. This is Spielberg, and Jackson, being the innovation, boundary-pushing filmmakers they are.

Moving on. Andy Serkis is hilarious. Captain Haddock is a drunk and a baboon you love, which I understand is how his character comes off in the comics. Characters like this are nothing new, but something about Serkis’ portrayal makes Haddock, for me at least, genuinely funny. He’s funny drunk. He’s funny sobering up. And he’s funny when he starts drinking again and goes completely crazy. What’s funny, perhaps, is that Haddock isn’t a funny drunk you want to sober up. When sober he’s a complete waste of a character, making you want him to be drinking again! It’s great. He’s definitely the stand-out actor and character of the film.

Not to discredit the rest of the cast who did equally great jobs. Jamie Bell is superb as Tintin. Daniel Craig is creepy as Sakharine and his ancestor Red Rackham, who look nothing like the blue-eyed A-lister and only oddly sound like this, and yet are entirely his mannerisms and movements (performance-capture, yet another advantage to the style of animation – allowing characters to completely play a character who is in no way physically similar). In fact, just about every character in this film proves that advantage: Jamie Bell plays a teenager, Serkis plays a large drunkard, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play twins (which emotionally may be true of the duo, but not physically). Making Tintin an animated film allows Spielberg to cast solely based on personality and performance and what the actor can bring to the role, not what they look like.

As for everything else in The Adventures of Tintin, they are solid as expected. I shouldn’t have to say much about John Williams’ score, as if he would ever write a bad score. I can’t say the themes are anything ground-breaking or worth purchasing on their own, but I’ve only seen the film once and I wasn’t truly hooked until well into the first act, so perhaps repeat viewings would make me appreciate it more. Beyond this, Tintin, I think, is similar to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in that it is a film well directed, and that shows in the final product. I’ve heard a fellow student say Steven Spielberg is really good when he’s good and really bad when he’s bad and there’s little left in between. I can see where he sees that, and I’d have to say Tintin falls in the really good category. It’s not necessarily as ground-breaking or heart-warming as some of his other films, but it’s really fun to watch and very much deserving of watching again. Not just that, it’s a film that can be watched with a group and enjoyed as a group, making it perfect for the holidays and hopefully successful enough for the sequels it deserves. Tintin may be an old character, but Spielberg and Jackson have just successfully propelled him into the 21st-century while retaining all the iconic elements that make it relevant in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “The Beauty of Animated Tintin

  1. Spielberg may not score much points when it comes to his use of motion-capture animation here but the film still benefits from a fun and kinetic direction that brings him back to his old Indiana Jones days. Serkis is a riot the whole time as well. Great review.

    1. Thanks! I completely agree about Serkis. He’s the stand out of the whole bunch. My main wish for a sequel (if it happens) would be for Pegg and Frost to be given a larger role because they were equally funny when given screen time.

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