Regardless of whether you made the joyful discovery of Herge’s Tintin comics as a child, or, like me, got hooked on the clear-line expressiveness of the stories much later in life, the series of books that make up the entirety of the Adventures of Tintin is culturally iconic. Written during a time when Bolshevism was on the rise and certain modern political sensitivities were irrelevant, the books spanned genres, combining mystery, adventure, and even slapstick. Tintin himself is a Belgian boy-journalist, whose investigations always lead him into hairy situations, often in exotic locales like the Congo, with dangerous villains.
Debuting about 80 years ago, the Tintin franchise, which included magazines, etc., has taken its time coming to the big screen via Hollywood; maybe it’s a twist of cosmic fate dictating that Steven Spielberg be in the position to direct (while Peter Jackson produces). Certainly, the man who brought us the matinee candy of Raiders of the Lost Ark should be able to transform another type of comic to the big screen.
To a large extent, and thanks to the amazing ingenuity of Jackson’s Weta Digital studio, The Adventures of Tintin mesmerizes with its stunning use of motion-capture technology, literally bringing chase scenes through a Moroccan village into our laps and over our heads. Another scene, in which Tintin braves Paris traffic to pursue a pickpocket, is almost equally whiz-bang.
The plot mixes elements of several Tintin books, including The Secret of the Unicorn, and shows Tintin (Jamie Bell) meeting his oft-partner-in-adventure, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose link to the mystery of a pirate’s lost treasure adds a personal element to the story. That’s a good thing, because too often, Tintin runs the risk of mind-numbing us with its endless chases and cloak-and-dagger scenes. There is a little humor, provided mostly by Tintin’s faithful and often canny dog Snowy, and the hysterically inept policemen, the Thompson Twins, but most of the story plunges us from one wild scene into the next.
There’s a thrilling escape from an ocean liner, where Tintin has been taken by the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), which leads to yet another stunning set piece involving a desert and a recurring memory of swashbuckling glory. Spielberg, and writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, seem bent on making sure their audience never has a chance to relax or take a breath, let alone make a trip to the snack stand.
The animation is beautiful, having coming so far from the scary zombie look of, say, The Polar Express; the sight of Tom Hanks’ conductor still gives me the willies (or maybe that’s just Tom Hanks in general). But something of the pristine magic of the clear-line originals doesn’t make the leap to big screen. Somehow, Herge could convey scads of information and emotion from a simple line drawing of Tintin with his black eye slits raised in alarm, than even Spielberg and his impressive associates can muster. I’m sure many Tintin devotees will find issue with various things in this translation, and some may be petty, even silly. But it has to be said that Spielberg does us all a disservice in moving the story at such breakneck speed. One of the primary splendors of the comics is the ability to absorb the action at our own pace, and to savor Tintin (and most definitely Snowy) as we wish.