Tintin is a terrible journalist. It has to be said — his walls are covered with framed news stories about his exploits rather than work published under his byline, he takes not one note (pity his poor fact-checker) and not even by the laxest of Fox News standards could he be considered objective, given how much he involves himself in the tale of pirate ships and lost treasures that unfurls in Steven Spielberg‘s “The Adventures of Tintin.” You could also argue that Indiana Jones is a questionable archaeologist, with the cultural imperialism of his carefree snagging of international artifacts and the amount of destruction he leaves in the wake of his exploration of historical sites. But Indiana Jones has personality, and, like the man says, personality goes a long way.
Tintin does not, and the frantic pace “The Adventures of Tintin” seems to stem from the sense that, were things to slow down, giving the characters time to talk, audiences would get savvy to the fact and leave. The film, loosely adapted from three of Hergé‘s comic books about the beloved bequiffed boy reporter, finds Spielberg (working with producer Peter Jackson) reaching back to the nostalgic action-adventure feel of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and its like, for the inner child-summoning sense of wonder that once upon a time seemed to come so easily to him. As a technical achievement, “The Adventures of Tintin” is hands-down impressive, using performance capture and animation to create a world of seemingly limitless possibility through which the camera swings with dizzying freedom. As a piece of art or lasting entertainment, it’s disappointingly hollow, all spectacle and no joy.
The story starts in the presumably Belgian city in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) lives with his faithful dog Snowy (who’s adorable, though he’s faces a lot of competition in this year of memorable canine sidekicks). At the outdoor market, he impulse-buys a model ship that turns out to be more than just mantelpiece decor — immediately after it’s in his hands, two mysterious strangers, one of them the malevolent Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), try to buy it from him. What they’re looking for is actually related to the full-sized sailing ship on which Tintin’s purchase is modeled, the Unicorn, which sank with its cargo of treasure in the 17th century after an attack by the pirate Red Rackham. Tussles for the secret hidden in the model ship land our hero on a boat bound for Morocco, where meets the displaced and permanently drunk Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), the last relative of Sir Francis, who oversaw the Unicorn’s fateful final voyage.
That “The Adventures of Tintin” revolves around helping an unpleasant alcoholic recover the inheritance he never knew he had is not, in itself, problematic — films have certainly been based on less. But that reconstructing the journey Tintin and Haddock take requires consulting one’s notes for reminders of why the pair traveled to the places they did is — the “adventure” is the thinnest of threads connecting setpiece after setpiece. Sakharine, who reveals himself to be the descendant of Red Rackham, has an evil plan that involves some delightful bits of nonsense, like the strategic use of an oblivious soprano soloist to aid him in an act of theft, but other than have villainy be passed down to him doesn’t have any distinguishing characteristics himself. He and Haddock end up engaging in a duel that parallels the one their forefathers fought on the deck of a burning ship, with dockside cranes instead of swords, a clever echo of the past that, like so much of the film, doesn’t add up to anything more.
The quality of the animation on hand is high, though it’s far better with settings than with the characters. Tintin and company don’t look quite human, per se, but they also don’t fall into the dead-eyed uncanny valley. When the camera comes in close, we see the whispers of crow’s feet at the corners of Tintin’s baby blues and an encroachment of nose hair poking out of Haddock’s (whose focus is not on grooming) nostrils. The stylized beauty of the world in which The Adventures of Tintin takes place is casually evident in even in small scenes like the one in which our protagonist does some research at the library, the room illuminated by chandeliers above. But that same careful construction, even in 3D, makes the extravagant, exhausting action sequences seem like the toppling of elaborate dominos set-ups. Two sea vessels clashing in a storm, a chaotic chase through a Moroccan harbor — they’re all choreography and no consequence. It was only bit involving a seaplane attacking a stranded lifeboat that had a frisson of danger to it, for a moment allowing you to forget that the whole film was (and feels like it was) constructed inside a computer.
What is it that makes you clutch your armrests in distress at the impending death by incinerator of a group of talking toys in one animated feature, and shrug in indifference at the should-be glorious vision of a ship crashing over desert dunes from the depths of memory in another? They’re all just digital phantoms conjured with the latest ever-changing movie technology. But that doesn’t change the fact that some films are possessed with something like a soul, and “The Adventures of Tintin,” despite gathering up so many nostalgic trappings of lost childhoods and despite the many talented people involved, just doesn’t. It’s another would-be franchise with a sequel already lined up. [C]