Film Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The less serious of Steven Spielberg's two 2011 holiday films is a splashy animated adventure that shows the director returning to the kicky period thrills of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'

Just like soccer, Hergé’s comic-book series The Adventures of Tintin is one of those joys that most of the world appreciates in far greater quantities than the United States. In the States, Hergé’s roustabout hero with the distinctive tuft of red hair has always been something of a marginal taste favored by those who prefer their comic heroes not to come barnacled with an entire toy store’s worth of ancillary product. Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating film adaptation of the series shows definitively that there is nothing niche about Tintin’s family-friendly, fearless, gunslinging appeal.

Set somewhat vaguely in the ’40s, the vibrantly animated film brings a dashing air of freewheeling pulp thrills to its somewhat slapdash story. Tintin himself is a plucky investigative reporter with a can-do boy’s-adventure attitude (as voiced by Jamie Bell) that’s more intrepid Boy Scout than ink-stained wretch. He and his yippy dog sidekick Snowy are minding their own business in the market one day—in a neat visual quip, we see a caricaturist paint Tintin as Hergé drew him—when Tintin spies a three-masted model boat he wants to buy. A Maltese Falcon-like scenario then ensues, as the boat turns out to contain a secret wanted by a nefarious guild led by the almost perfectly sinister Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig, slithering his dialogue like a reptile).

The mood is set nicely with a quip-heavy screenplay by Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, which balances adroitly between easy-to-follow historical-mystery plotting and breezy humor (the latter likely courtesy of the Scott Pilgrim writers Wright and Cornish). The bouncy, Gallic-themed score by a surprisingly nimble John Williams is well-attuned to the film’s adventurous spirit. But it’s the gorgeously detailed motion-capture animation (the Weta team, working here courtesy of executive producer Peter Jackson) and 3D cinematography that truly bring this film to life. Some of the same problems that afflicted Robert Zemeckis’s earlier motion-capture films are present here, in that the face of Tintin and some other characters can seem too flat and expressionless. But the relentless pacing, epic scope and dynamic camerawork make such concerns mere quibbles.

For his first animated feature, Spielberg seems as at home as he ever was with any of the Indiana Jones films, which Tintin most closely resembles. The opening scenes stumble here and there, with Tintin forced to provide out-loud exposition to Snowy as a way of moving the story along. Playing the bumbling, Chaplinesque detectives Thompson and Thompson, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are good for a few chuckles but are mostly wasted.  But once Tintin and Snowy hit the road and team up with the grumbling souse Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) in a race to find a pile of hidden treasure before Sakharine gets to it, the film turns into a near-perfect matinee-style escapade. The combination of Haddock’s whiskey-sodden bumbling and Tintin’s straight-arrow determination gives the film a certain crazed Looney Tunes balance (though Haddock’s steady drinking and the high body count of a flashback pirate battle scene make the PG rating somewhat questionable).

In scene after scene, from a rain-lashed freighter to Saharan sand dunes, Spielberg sends Tintin through a carnival of impossible dangers and near-escapes. A brilliantly breathless climactic chase through a hillside Moroccan town seems determined to break all land-speed records for single-take action scenes, as well as give any of the Bourne films a run for their money.

Tintin may remain a marginal character as far as comic books go, but Spielberg and team have shown there is plenty of reason to expect there will be an appreciative audience for Tintin’s newer cinematic adventures.