Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin / ***½ (PG)

Featuring vocal and motion capture performances by:
Tintin: Jamie Bell
Captain Haddock: Andy Serkis
Sakharine: Daniel Craig
Thomson: Nick Frost
Thompson: Simon Pegg

Paramount Picutres and Columbia Pictures present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish. Based on the comic book series by Hergé. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG (for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking).

My parents were readers. They also happened to be very practical people. Books cost money. One of the most frequented stores of ours when I was young was Bookland. My mother would spend hours there. It was in the back corner of Bookland, in the children’s section, where I discovered a treasure—the comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin” by Belgian author and artist Hergé. I believe they were rather expensive comics for I never actually owned any. They were hardcovers. But, I read almost all of them. While my mother shopped, I would sit in the back corner of Bookland reading all about the kid reporter Tintin and his adventures all over the world.

When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was going to adapt Tintin into an animated series of movies, I thought I couldn’t conceive of a better fit. Tintin is like a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond in the form of a family friendly kid reporter. Tintin always has his trusty dog Snowy by his side, and he’s one of those Spielberg kids who always seems to be just slightly smarter than all the adults in the room. His adventures take him to exotic places and have him using crazy gadgets and vehicles, but it is his intellect that keeps him in the hunt for whatever treasure or story to which the clues seem to lead.

“The Adventures of Titin” marks Spielberg’s first foray into animation as well as 3D. To recreate the unique look of the original Tintin comics in a CGI animated format, Spielberg chose to use the motion capture process, popularized by the character of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (that film’s director, Peter Jackson, is one of Spielberg’s co-producers and slated to direct the next Tintin adventure). This process was used in such animated hits as “The Polar Express” and Disney’s “A Christmas Carol”. It involves having live actors perform the physical movements of the characters, transferring those images to a computer, and rendering them into an animated format. The format is especially effective in capturing lifelike facial movement detail for the animated characters.

The results are a rousing adventure beginning with the opening credits of the film. Those credits are probably the best use of 3D in the movie. They have the same retro stylization as the credits for Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can”. Spielberg does something in the credits that is becoming a new trend in opening credit sequences. Just as in the new movie “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, the opening credits act as an appetizer for the story you’re about to watch by giving you a skimmed preview of the film’s plot.

That plot begins in earnest as soon as those credits are finished. Spielberg and his screenwriters take a few moments to introduce their audience to the plucky hero and the time capsule visual style of the movie by sweeping down into a Brussels market place where Tintin is having his portrait done by an artist who replicates Hergé’s art in his caricatures. We meet Tintin’s faithful fox terrier Snowy, with the perfect pet behavior of movie animals, which is easier to obtain in the animated format.

We are quickly swept up into a plot involving pickpockets, a family curse, a sunken pirate treasure, and the powerful effects of alcohol. Tintin (Jamie Bell, “The Eagle”) finds a beautiful model ship of the frigate, the Unicorn. Before he even leaves the market place with it two different men approach him, one an American the other a professor-type by the name of Sakharine (Daniel Craig, “Casion Royale”), offering him money for the model. Tintin refuses, and each man finds his way to Tintin's home later in the day. The American delivers a warning that ends in death. Sakharine ransacks the place when Tintin is gone.

Tintin discovers that the Unicorn was an actual ship that disappeared. A man named Haddock captained it. A piece of parchment he finds in the model’s mast says that only a Haddock will be able to discover the secret of the Unicorn. Before Tintin can set out find Haddock himself, Sakharine kidnaps the boy to get the parchment. When Tintin awakes, he finds himself on a ship where the ship’s captain is also a prisoner. Is it a surprise that the captain’s name is Haddock?

While the adventure action is non-stop and the animation is nothing short of stunning, it is the character of Haddock (Andy Serkis, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) who really brings this material to life. Back when I was a kid, nobody thought twice about having a drunkard play hero in a children’s story. Today, it’s a little out of the ordinary, but the character is so entertaining, I’m willing to forgive the transgression. Also along for part of the ride are the comic book’s bumbling detective twins, Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead” fame).

Spielberg is in his usual top-notch form directing this action-based adventure that skews more toward the family set than a strictly adult audience. Like his “Indiana Jones” movies, the film is both thrilling and funny, making full use of the exotic locations to which it takes its characters. There’s even a taste of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” fun thrown in with a flashback to what really happened to the Unicorn ship. Spielberg wisely doesn’t overuse the 3D format, but the way he constructs wildly complex action sequences allows the format a purpose beyond just gaining the exhibitors a couple of extra bucks for admission. “The Adventures of Tintin” is in every way the equal to my memories of reading the original Tintin comic books when I was a kid. For those unfamiliar with the Tintin comics, trust me in telling you that this is a wonderful adventure.

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