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Pushing Through Walls: In Praise of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’

Pushing Through Walls: In Praise of 'The Adventures of Tintin'

This Friday, you’ll be able to see Steven Spielberg’s beloved blockbuster “Jurassic Park” back on the big screen for its 20th anniversary, now in 3D. The raptors will leap out at you, the T-Rex will run right towards your seat, and Jeff Goldblum’s snarky stammering will bombard you in every possible dimension. I’m excited to see “Jurassic Park” in a theater again — but if you gave me all of Spielberg’s filmography to choose from and made me pick just one to watch on the big screen in 3D, the choice would be easy.

I’d watch “The Adventures of Tintin.” 

Maybe that’s an obvious pick since it was actually made and released in 3D. But even if you ditched the 3D stipulation, “Tintin” would be way up on my list of Spielberg movies I’d want to see again in a movie theater. I think it’s Spielberg’s most underrated movie of the last ten years. It might be his best movie of the last decade, period.

“Tintin,” based on the iconic series of graphic novels by Belgian cartoonist Herge, was not particularly well-received upon its initial release almost 18 months ago. It opened within days of Spielberg’s other 2011 movie, “War Horse,” which was based on an acclaimed novel and play and went on to earn six Academy Award nominations (“Tintin,” which earned just one nomination for its John Williams Score, didn’t even get a nod for Best Animated Feature). Although “Tintin” earned almost $300 million overseas (where the original source material is much more well-known), it — the seemingly sure-fire animated family adventure film — was actually outgrossed domestically by “War Horse,” $79.8 million to $77.5 million. 

Meanwhile, critics complained about its “wearisome” structure, “thinly drawn characters,” and “distracting” motion captured visuals. To put it in perspective, the film has a lower score on Rotten Tomatoes than “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — a movie that basically no one (outside of David Ehrlich and Kenji Fujishima) likes. 

In retrospect, I think the Academy, critics, and audiences backed the wrong horse (Thank you! I’ll be here all week! Try the veal!). “The Adventures of Tintin” is the great “Indiana Jones” sequel we all wanted “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to be; a breathless, globetrotting mystery-chase film with stunning set pieces and hilarious comic relief. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs laid out along the track of a roller coaster with no brakes. Once it starts, “Tintin” never stops until it ends. When it’s over, you want to take the ride all over again from the beginning.

I’ve never kept an exact count, but if I had to guess, I’d estimate there’s no more than a dozen shots in all 107 minutes of “The Adventures of Tintin” in which the camera is completely still. This movie makes Scorsese at his most cocaineiest look like Ozu at his most sedate. Even in close-ups, the camera is twitchy and nervous, zooming, tracking, and shifting as if it’s being operated handheld even though there’s actually no camera involved here at all — “Tintin” was motion captured on the same high-tech stage where James Cameron shot “Avatar,” and then digitally animated by the wizards of producer Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital. The actors wore special suits that recorded their performances, which were then fed into computers and used to animate their digital alter egos. The camera’s movements are designed later by the director and his animators — and Spielberg’s is constantly swooping, circling, diving, flying — or, as in this absolutely brilliant chase sequence, all of the above simultaneously without a single cut.

(NOTE: The music in this clip is not from the film’s actual soundtrack — I suggest just turning off the volume and focusing on the visuals.)

Some critics dismissed Spielberg’s fluid imagery in scenes like this one specifically because “Tintin” is motion captured. There’s no actual camera, they argued, so choreographing this chase is “easier” or “less impressive” than a similar one in live-action. While that’s undoubtedly true, the notion that mocap-directing a bravura chase is easy is a false premise. If it’s so easy, why aren’t the chases in other mocap movies this good?

When critics say this sort of directing is “easy” I think what they really mean is that it “looks easy” when done by a filmmaker like Spielberg, one of the absolute masters of this kind of breakneck adventure movie. A virtual camera is worthless without an eye to place it and move it in three dimensional space. Spielberg’s instinctual touch for visual storytelling makes it look effortless, when the reality is anything but.

Spielberg is a director of the old school — he still shoots his movies on celluloid, and claims he will continue to do so as long as he possibly can. But sequences like that Moroccan chase show he’s no Luddite, and highlight the way in which he gracefully adapted his own style to fully exploit digital technology’s potential. Rather than making an animated movie that looks like one of his classic live-action pictures, Spielberg directed “Tintin” with reckless abandon, like an artist who’s painted only blue landscapes for thirty years and then finally gets the chance to use a palette with every color of the rainbow. He utilizes digital animation to unleash the full scope of his imagination.

(NOTE: Tintin’s dog Snowy is totally awesome.)

Some critics and audiences chided “Tintin” for its flat characters — seemingly ignoring the fact that the movie is called “The Adventures of Tintin” not “The Profound Emotional Turmoil of Tintin.” Still, for all their griping, the naysayers missed the lovely, tragicomic arc undertaken by Tintin’s (Jamie Bell) boozy, nautical sidekick, Captain Haddock, motion captured and voiced by mocap genius Andy Serkis. Haddock is a drunken lout who belongs to a long line of great seamen, whose whiskey-soaked memory holds the key to the secret location of a lost treasure. Haddock’s quest for redemption against the man who wishes to destroy his family’s legacy and steal their forturne (voiced by Daniel Craig) provides “Tintin”‘s emotional high points, funniest gags, and several unforgettable images — like when Haddock finally recalls his ancestor’s tale in the middle of the desert, and his hallucinations transform huge sand dunes into roiling seas in yet another audacious sequence.

A 75% approval rating from critics isn’t terrible, but from my perspective, it seems like no one has given Spielberg enough credit for perhaps the most impressive technical achievement of his recent career — and certainly his most visually arresting work since “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” True, it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional wallop as “Jurassic Park” — but it might be even more exciting. And where “Jurassic Park” paints a deeply ambivalent portrait of technology, “Tintin” embraces the digital future. 

Near the end of the film, when Tintin is at his lowest point, Haddock gives him a pep talk about quitting.”You care about something,” he says, “you fight for it. You hit a wall, you push through it.” “The Adventures of Tintin” is an inspiring tribute to that sort of indomitable moviemaking spirit. By keepings its camera, its characters, and its story in constant motion, “Tintin” highlights motion capture’s potential to break down the obstacles of twentieth century filmmaking with boundless visual invention.

Watch “The Adventures of Tintin” on Netflix Instant.

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