Steven Spielberg, fantast supreme, always felt manacled by movie reality. Simple live action cramped his dreamy style; the cool, superkid things he envisioned demanded techniques beyond Hollywood naturalism. From the beginning — starting with Duel, which aired on TV 40 years ago last month, then Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. — he placed ordinary people in nightmare or dream worlds that echoed comic books or cartoons. His asked his actors to mime fear or awe in reaction to a killer truck, a great white shark or a visiting spaceship or alien and not to worry that they couldn’t see it or that it was a puppet; he’d bring it alive in post. But the limitations of available special effects had to frustrate Spielberg. He was an Alfred Hitchcock who wanted to be Walt Disney, creating his own wonderland — or a movie Einstein, who knew there was a fourth dimension but couldn’t yet live in it.
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Motion capture, which transforms actors into cartoon characters in a vividly animated landscape, is the technique Spielberg has been waiting for — the Christmas gift, or senior-citizen birthday present (he turned 65 on Dec. 18), that he’s dreamed of since his movie childhood. Gone is the clumsy, antiquated bother of live-action filmmaking, with its construction of sets, waiting for a perfect sky, glitches in a mechanical shark and 43rd exasperating take to get an actor’s expression. Now the computer wizards at Peter Jackson’s Weta Enterprises use performances as reference points for CGI illustrations, not unlike how Norman Rockwell (whose work Spielberg has reverently collected) staged photographs he would then reproduce as paintings for Saturday Evening Post covers. “Because of the medium of animation,” Spielberg told the New York Times, “suddenly my imagination wasn’t limited by the exigencies of physical outdoor production. All the production was from the imagination right to the computer, and there’s nothing better than that.” Maybe one thing better: motion-capture in 3-D!
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In The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg found an ideal vehicle for his favorite new toy. And in Hergé, Tintin’s Belgian creator, he located a kindred spirit: a Disney of comic strips. (Hergé inaugurated the series in 1929, a year after the debut of Disney’s seminal cartoon short Steamboat Willie, and Hergé’s signature has the bold flourishes of Walt’s, though Disney himself famously could not draw it.) Tintin is the boy reporter whose globe-trotting escapades filled some 33 storybooks that have delighted hundreds of millions of readers; he is as famous and beloved around the world as he is unknown, virtually, in the U.S. (FYI, the name as pronounced in Europe doesn’t rhyme with win-win but sounds more or less like tan-tan, very light on the n‘s.)
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Spielberg first heard of Tintin when references to him popped up in European reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He teamed up with Jackson, a longtime Hergé fan, to make this whirling movie, which plays like an animated, exhaustively entertaining Raiders, with the teenage Tintin replacing Harrison Ford’s grizzled Ind-Ind. The movie was savaged in the Guardian, whose literary critic Nicholas Lezard described it as “two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape.” Other Tintin admirers apparently don’t feel violated: the movie has earned $240 million in two months of international release. Finally it comes to North America, where — the Lezards of the world notwithstanding — the response should be Tintinastic.
The plot has Tintin (Jamie Bell) helping the perpetually inebriated Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) search for a 17th century treasure hidden by Haddock’s seafaring ancestor, and which is also sought by the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The story comes mostly from the books The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, but fans will spot mementos of other Tintin stories (The Blue Lotus, The Seven Crystal Balls, The Broken Ear, King Ottokar’s Sceptre) on newspaper front pages framed in our hero’s apartment. And in the movie’s first scene, the young Tintin is sketched by a young Hergé.
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Jackson and Spielberg entrusted the script to a trio of genre-savvy writers. Steven Moffat (Brit TV’s Doctor Who and the Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes) took the first swipe, with a rewrite by Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Joe Cornish (The Adam and Joe Show, Attack the Block). What emerged was a tale faithful, in its fashion, to both Hergé and Spielberg. The writers retained that stout soprano Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel), the “Milanese Nightingale” who stalks through six of the books; she shows up here to demonstrate how her high notes can shatter bulletproof glass. (Her aria “Ah, Je Veux Vivre,” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, is performed by Renée Fleming.) The bumbling, lookalike police detectives — Dupont and Dupond in the stories’ original French, Thompson and Thomson in the English translations — are here too. Voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the stars of Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the Thom(p)son twins are saved from longueurs of imbecility by the pair’s bluff good nature in the face of their own incompetence. Like Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first 3-D movie, Spielberg’s is set in a French-speaking country whose denizens are veddy English.
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Tintin, with his smooth, polyvinyl skin and the blandly cheerful features of Skeezix from Frank King’s Gasoline Alley comic strip, has few mannerisms (other than uttering the occasional “Great snakes!”) or personal quirks. He could be the generic, genetically engineered spirit of boys’ adventure. Indeed, the film’s fullest, most endearing character is not human or even cartoon-human, nor was he portrayed by a living creature. This is Tintin’s fox terrier Snowy, whose quizzical features register the subtlest emotions, and who saves his master’s life countless times by chewing through ropes that bind Tintin, biting a brigand’s gun hand, eventually leading Haddock to the treasure and, in a delightful fillip, chasing after Tintin’s kidnappers by scampering underneath a herd of cows and wreaking udder chaos. If there were a Movie Dog of the Year award, Snowy would be tied for first place with Uggie from The Artist.
Actually, characterization is beside the point. Tintin is a film from a comic book: its challenge is to give a kinetic kick to static images and find a grand visual equivalent to Hergé’s world. His panels were a few square inches; the 3-D screen in the right kind of theater spans 50 ft. (15 m), which Spielberg and the Weta team splash with bold subtleties of color and shadow. Freed from live-action constraints, the director can make the Hollywood version of an abstract film: a movie about movement. He shows people reflected in a puddle or a bubble, and creates delirious tracking shots that in the old technology would be only storyboard fantasies.
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One astonishing shot, in a flashback involving the 17th century Haddock’s battle on the Unicorn against the villainous Red Rackham, pirouettes from starboard to port and beyond in a 420-degree rush of brilliant action choreography. The big chase scene, through the streets of the Middle Eastern kingdom of Bagghar, is a breathless, bustling miracle: Sakharine in a car, Tintin and Haddock on a motorbike, Snowy scampering after Sakharine’s falcon, all in pursuit of three pieces of paper that hold the secret to the treasure. Lasting 2 min. 38 sec., and including a hotel that slides down the streets and skids to a stop at the seaport, the sequence was conceived and executed as a single shot. The exhausted, grateful viewer will want to see this scene again, instantly, and to study its explosive physics on DVD.
To some critics, Spielberg represents everything wrong with movies of the past 40 years: every manipulative, sentimental and infantile impulse used by him and endlessly exploited by imitators. I say, let Spielberg be Spielberg. In a way he is Disney, mining childhood traumas for animated gold; in another way Hitchcock, preying masterfully on audiences’ expectations; in another way Hergé, weaving adventure-story clichés into morality plays of calculated innocence.
One more thing: in his boy-genius ability to find cunning solutions to the knottiest narrative problems and make it look easy, Spielberg is Tintin.