An animated mystery-adventure-action film about a young journalist who stumbles into a frantic search for sunken treasure that was lost centuries ago during a pirate duel may sound like an original idea from the mind of director Steven Spielberg. But this story can’t claim to have been born amidst Spielberg’s neurons and frontal lobes. As is the case with previous Spielberg-directed films like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park”; “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn” is based on a piece of popular literature: the Belgian comic book series written and illustrated by Hergé (Georges Remi) from 1929 to 1983. Along with Spielberg’s direction, Peter Jackson produces this long awaited (Spielberg bought the film rights for Tintin back in 1983) motion-capture animated film based on the boy detective who’s been well known throughout Europe for the better part of a century. For the most part, the two American filmmaking juggernauts do Hergé justice by creating a film that reeks with the steamy promise of fun, dangerous adventure.
One day while out shopping in an outdoor European marketplace with his dog Snowy, Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) buys a model ship called the Unicorn for a cheap price. Seconds after his purchase, Tintin is approached by a cane-wielding old man, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who tries to buy it from him for a large sum of cash. When Tintin refuses, he unknowingly makes a determined enemy in Sakharine. The model ship soon becomes the cause of kidnapping and gun-rattling violence, for a secret hides within its tiny walls that Sakharine is willing to kill for. When Tintin finds out what that secret is, he is thrown into a race to find a long-lost treasure, one that takes him to the desert sands of Morocco.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of “The Adventures of Tintin” is its visual aesthetic. Jackson insisted that instead of doing a live-action movie on Tintin, it should instead be shot performance capture style. After thirty seconds of footage, you can see that Jackson was right; the digital characters pop out of the screen in frighteningly real high definition (every fiber of Tintin’s blue sweater can be counted), while still retaining a colorful comic book feel. The animation duties were flawlessly handled by Weta Digital, the Jackson co-founded digital visual effects company that’s won five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects for films like “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Avatar.”
Dotting the eye-catching scenery are characters that bubble over with individualized personalities that seem more lifelike than many humans. This is due in large part to the film’s trio of seasoned scriptwriters: Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”). After Moffat wrote the script’s first draft, he was tugged away from the Tintin project due to his increased involvement with the “Doctor Who” television series. Wright and Cornish tag-teamed on the rewrite, and boy, did they do a fine job of melting humor, suspense, and drama into a crispy treat of dialogue that goes down smooth. These characters may be fictional cartoons, but they demand your attention when they speak. My only complaint with the screenwriting is its jagged plot structure. Moffat and company don’t allow any buildup in the film’s beginning to let viewers get to know Tintin; you’re just thrown into the middle of his life as if you’ve known his personality and tendencies for years. This may confuse many non-readers of the Tintin comics. Also, the climax doesn’t have any sufficient escalation and happens uncomfortably fast. I was looking forward to a better showdown between Tintin and Sakharine.
Tintin, the leading man, is brought to life with the earnest, high-pitched voice of Jamie Bell. A native Englishman, Bell is a rising star to keep an eye on. He’s had significant supporting roles in recent films like “The Eagle” and “Retreat,” but hasn’t taken the reigns in some time, so it was interesting to see a guy who’s name isn’t well-known take command of an epic retelling of a classic tale. Bell does a good job balancing determination with fear in the pitch and speed of his voice; Tintin comes across as a likeable guy because of this range.
Staggering at Tintin’s side through the latter half of the film is the drunken seaman, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy know Serkis as the voice of Gollum, the raspy-voiced, cave dwelling creature that tries to steal the ring from Frodo. This time around, Serkis’s voice is almost unrecognizable. Instead of the squeaks and shrill cries of Gollum, Serkis displays a gruff, deep bellow that hangs in the air whenever Haddock speaks.
Haddock himself is a total blast. Depressed over being mutinied by his crew and believing his family line to be forever cursed, Haddock slams back alcohol as frequently as Snowy barks at criminals. And when Haddock gets drunk, he is one funny fellow. The writers put the wasted Haddock in dire situations like being on top of a moving plane or being stranded on a rowboat in the ocean with no land in sight, then let him stumble around with death only inches from his black beard. Serkis, who improvised on set, goes with the flow and lets “close calls comedy” ensue.
Also aiding Tintin on his quest are the oafish detectives Thomson and Thompson, played by longtime Brit buddies Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. The crime-fighting duo adds some classic Three Stooges-like comedy to the plot.
Filling in the role of head foe, Craig leaves his mark on Sakharine. Craig wisely covers any resemblance to his James Bond role by replacing his deep, seductive voice with a nasally bark that just oozes “bad guy.”
Besides the flaws in plot structure, the only other part of “The Adventures of Tintin” that’s sour is the progression of some action scenes from plausible to insane. Having Tintin climb hammocks sagging with burly slumbering deckhands is funny and maybe even relatable, but when Tintin uses a motorcycle wheel to slide down a clothesline through a Moroccan town in pursuit of a falcon, only to fly through the air in cheap 3D slow-motion, it’s too much.
I give this particular near-Christmas release of Spielberg’s four stars out of five, essentially a B+.
“The Adventures of Tintin” is rated “PG” for adventure/action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking. It has a 1 hour and 44 minute runtime and was released in theaters across the country on December 21, 2011.
For more information on Carmike Wynnsong 15, the excellent theater where the Tuesday Movie Men viewed “The Adventures of Tintin”, please visit: http://carmike.com/