Steven Spielberg’s motion-captured, 3-D The Adventures of Tintin rolls together plot elements from three comic-book tales starring Belgian artist Hergé’s intrepid boy reporter, Tintin, first introduced in 1929 and one of the all-time most iconographic characters in comic art.
After stumbling across a mysterious clue in a model ship, Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) bands together with the brawling, bibulous Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) to assemble directions that lead to a sunken treasure. They’re trying to get there ahead of the nefarious Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), whose pirate forebear, Red Rackham, once tried to lift the booty from Haddock’s ancestor, serving in the navy of Charles II.
“Some things are easily lost,” repeats Tintin in one scene; he’s contemplating his latest mystery, but the line could be a critique of his latest outing. This is illustrated at the start of Adventures as the new Tintin—created for Spielberg by producer Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital effects team with every hair in his coif articulated and dancing in the breeze—is placed alongside the character as drawn by Hergé. The contrast between niggling photorealism and Hergé’s light, crisp line is shocking—and not favorable to Spielberg’s opulence.
Yes, something has been lost in the digital transfer—close-ups meant to register a light of revelation in Tintin’s eyes show only a chromium shine, while the character’s perfectly pore-dappled skin has a marzipan quality. But if Adventures, in its complete artifice, has sacrificed simple wonderment, it also takes advantage of the capacity for unchained, loop-the-loop camerawork created by today’s platoons of CG technicians.
The movement here is near-constant, and Spielberg’s orchestration of action is undiminished. In many cases, he seems to be revising and one-upping set pieces from his Indiana Jones movies, which globe-hopping Adventures most closely approaches in spirit. There is the prop-plane crash landing with threatening propeller that borrows from Temple of Doom and Raiders, as well as Spielberg’s particular specialty, the grand chase as a clockwork of miniature moving parts, here with Tintin and Sakharine’s vying vehicles, Tintin’s dog, and a trained hawk, all scrambling after a treasure map in one unbroken tracking motion along the cascading streets of a hillside town. Throughout, Spielberg shows a juggler’s poise in sustaining scenes within scenes, as in Haddock’s recounting of Red Rackham’s raid of his ancestral ship.
Adventures is an awesome movie mechanism, but awe comes at a cost. The Tintin character is something like a blank spot at the movie’s center, most vivid (unfortunately) as a plucky, priggish motivational speaker when he coaches Haddock out of a drinking problem. It’s doubtful that this fading of charm will be noticed when the movie is in riotous, reeling motion—but just as doubtful that Spielberg’s Tintin will displace Hergé’s once the free fall stops.