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Spielberg, Tintin, and the Race for Oscar

Spielberg, Tintin, and the Race for Oscar

If the animated Oscar competition comes down to originality and boldness, then you can’t rule out a potential horse race between “Rango” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” Make no mistake: despite the outcry from traditionalists, “Tintin” is nothing if not animated, and definitely a performance capture game-changer: a unique hybrid of the caricature and photoreal, thanks to the wizards of Weta, who’ve struck again after their “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” coup. The rendering of skin, eyes, mouth, and hair is so tactile, and there’s a more believable sense of weight and movement.

But more than that, “Tintin” is such an exhilarating ride, thanks to a rejuvenated Steven Spielberg, who was like a giddy kid with his point and shoot virtual camera/game controller, inventing and refining as he went along in this rich, hyper-real, 3-D world.

From its inspired hand-drawn opening credit sequence (evoking not only the essence of Hergé but also the energy of Saul Bass), to its rousing cliff-hanger (passing the baton to Peter Jackson for the sequel),”Tintin” is the purest of pure cinema with its breathless action. I adore the fluid overlap of time and space and reality and memory; the way objects meld into one another like doppelgangers; the notion of seeing and being seen; and the way the past comes back to haunt you (such as the swashbuckling pirate flashbacks). Spielberg has truly found a kindred spirit in Hergé for merging his own classical sensibilities (riffing on Raiders, Hitchcock, and Bond) with the beloved Belgian’s fantastical sense of wonder.

Take the opening. What a brilliant way of introducing Hergé’s signature Ligne Claire graphic design and vivid color palette in the credits before entering the CG world of the movie. And having a Hergé stand-in painting a caricature of his Tintin creation, the earnest teenage reporter (Jamie Bell), is the perfect hand-off. It signals that we’re entering a new dimension and takes care of any unfamiliarity with Hergé’s comic books.

From there, it’s an old-fashioned tale of goodness, innocence, danger, and redemption, which is where Hergé and Spielberg obviously meet on mutual ground. Of course, Tintin is merely a catalyst for finding Red Rackham’s treasure ahead of the dastardly Sakharine (Daniel Craig). It’s really about the drunken Captain Haddock (the always inventive Andy Serkis) and his appointment with destiny. And also the love between a boy and his dog. Speaking of which, Snowy, the faithful terrier, is a remarkable animated character, and the movie’s unsung hero.

Indeed, Spielberg suggests it was Weta’s successful animated test of Snowy that convinced him to go the performance capture route in the first place. And for those who doubt the wisdom of his choice, there’s no way this would’ve worked as effectively as a live action/CG hybrid. The contrast would’ve been too stark. And Spielberg never could’ve pulled off the bravura motorcycle chase along the hilly Moroccan terrain — all in one take.

But getting back to Oscar, there’s certainly precedence on “Tintin”‘s side. “Monster House” not only qualified but was nominated.

According to an Academy governor that I spoke with a year ago, the concern is that technology will make the craft of animation obsolete — an automated pass through, so to speak. That’s why they’ve added the “frame-by-frame” caveat in defining animation. But they’re not even close to fully automating capture/render. Thus, performance capture merely gives you a more sophisticated framework from which to start, allowing the animators more time to bring it to life, frame-by-frame.

“You’re still playing the truth of the character, whether it’s rendered finally as a more animated visual style or photoreal,” suggests Serkis. “If you’re saying Tintin isn’t animation, then what does that say about voice actors that come along and stand in a booth for a few hours and deliver lines? This was not the case: we shot it like a movie.”

Or, as Disney’s hand-drawn vet Eric Goldberg (“Winnie the Pooh”) observes, “MoCap is a tool in the same way that rotoscope was a tool. It’s how you use it. It’s as little or as much as the filmmakers want. Hell, the Fleischers invented rotoscope, and you can’t tell me that Koco the Clown or the dance in Snow White isn’t animation. Of course it’s animation!”

Let’s see how “Tintin” (Dec. 21) plays with audiences and the Academy.

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