Perpetual Motion
Jeff Reichert on The Adventures of Tintin

Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating, performance-captured take on the Belgian comic artist Hergé’s classic action-adventure serial The Adventures of Tintin starts with a bang and barely pauses until the credits roll a hundred or so minutes later. Mere moments after Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell, but looking more like some bulbous vintage wooden toy varnished into life than the chiseled British actor), fresh from having his portrait painted in an open-air market, spies a beautiful model of an old galleon and makes his purchase, he’s accosted not only by a breathless overweight American, Barnaby (Joe Starr), bearing a dire warning about the provenance of the model, but following that, an elegantly creepy, long-limbed gentleman by the name of Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Sakharine also has an interest in this particular piece of craftwork, a replica of the lost HMS Unicorn, though his intent is clearly malicious given the particular cant of his goatee and small rimless glasses. The boy vigorously rebuffs both advances, but trouble is clearly brewing for young Tintin.

The lad returns home triumphant with his new purchase and Spielberg ranges his “camera” around the lad’s apartment, slowing briefly to pick up some framed headlines of the “Tintin Finds Lost Tomb!/Young Journalist Cracks Thousand Year-Old Riddle!” variety. This is about all we’re provided in the way of background information for our hero, even if Jamie Bell seems intent on transforming his digitally rendered Tintin into a flesh and blood creation through sheer variety of his vocal inflections. To his credit, he comes close. Even so, screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish (lesser-known than his cohorts, but responsible for last year’s best B-movie, Attack the Block), having established in their opening that Tintin is both plucky and indefatigable, and here in his home that he has, well, done some stuff, seem content to let things slide a bit. Save for a moment near the climax, their Tintin never expresses any doubt in his ability to succeed in any situation, survive any adventure now matter how dire. In this respect, his is a perfected movie-ready brand of heroism.

Once Tintin’s tale takes off via a kidnapping courtesy of Sakharine’s gang, there’s a dash of high seas adventure, a smattering of globe-trotting, an Arabian marketplace chase, some time spent lost at sea, a plane crash in the desert. At stake are three scrolls, each containing a clue to the treasure that was lost when the Unicorn, captained by one Sir Francis Haddock (Andy Serkis), sank after a battle with the pirate Red Rackham, a rogue who looks and sounds suspiciously like he might just be related to present-day villain Sakharine. The scrolls were hidden in three models of the same ship that our hero purchased at the market; Tintin’s faithful pup, Snowy, discovers the first one after rampaging with a vicious neighborhood cat through the apartment and overturning the miniature craft. Along with Snowy, Tintin is accompanied on his adventures by the bearish drunk Captain Haddock, direct descendent of the deceased officer of Charles II’s Navy (also voiced by Serkis), setting the stage for an ancestral grudge-match showdown and more jokes about the positive and negative effects of alcohol than one might like in their family entertainments.

The jaunty material feels not unlike the antics of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, and one imagines the director, always concerned with wowing his audience (both his greatest strength and Achilles’ heel) relishing the opportunity of re-creating the boyhood serials he so loved as a youth, but now sans the burden of gravity. He largely succeeds, providing along the way plenty of high velocity adventure (his aptitude in this area makes the digitally enhanced chases in Hugo seem positively tepid) and more than a handful of images worth hanging onto: rolling sand dunes morph into waves bearing the weight of a massive galleon on their backs; two ships warring with each other, their masts entangled, setting both vessels at precarious angles against the roiling sea; a climactic nighttime battle between two massive dockyard cranes, steel arms banging into each other like gladiators. Spielberg also takes obvious delight here in using radical scene transitions to surprise his viewer. Forget simple dissolves or fades to black, how about a close-up on a Haddock/Tintin handshake that turns their limbs into the crest of a ridge that the pair cross on horseback, or a reflection in a sword that becomes a portal to another part of the story set in another time entirely? (If you’re bored for even a second, there’s likely something “holy moly!”–worthy right around the corner.)

Still, even though this particular avenue of digital filmmaking has improved to the degree that we can now feel almost as though we’re watching physical objects move through space, there’s no substitute for the real thing. With Tintin’s character underdrawn, and without the physical stakes of an actor hurtling around the frame at the potential risk of life and limb, it’s hard to muster up a great deal of energy for anything save clinical, if at times joyous, admiration at the sheer intricacy of the entire contraption. With the Jones films, Spielberg’s designs always had to contend with one irascible, stubborn hunk of flesh in the form of Harrison Ford, whose actions and reactions to the various mousetraps created their central tension. (It’s telling that the least successful entry, Temple of Doom, was the one in which poor Indy seemed most stuck on a roller coaster.) Without physical hurdles to overcome, non-murderous gags to invent, squibs to place safely, and the like, Tintin, and frankly much of our contemporary digitized filmmaking, feels machine-tooled and inhuman. Though, to be fair, if Tintin was planned as some kind of penance for the even more mechanical Shia LaBeouf sequences of Crystal Skull, all is forgiven.

Tintin is wholly enjoyable as a thrill ride, and in that sense, it’s perhaps most akin to Spielberg’s very first feature, Duel, as opposed to the bulging lump of pure corn that was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s early road-race ‘n’ rage experiment feinted at an interest in the degradation of ’70s masculinity, but, perhaps even more so than overtly schlockier products of the day, dropped the metaphorical pretense in favor of showcasing how many different ways a young director could shoot two cars on the road together to prove himself the first time out. The similarly relentless Tintin has that same experimental vibe. Spielberg seems to wonder, Can we do a several-minute chase sequence using cars, foot, hawk, barrel, and more as vehicles? Today, the answer is, for better and for worse always: Why not?

I couldn’t help but think a little of Aardman’s lovingly crafted figures, especially the Wallace and Gromit of their first three shorts. There, a bunch of dry Brits put a bunch of molded clay through chases, intrigue, and action that was all wedded to characters, cleanly and quickly sketched from top to bottom. This predilection of mine for exposition and humanity in my actioners may mark me as somewhat quaint, but I still feel that Tintin amazes more often then it truly awes. It ends up an object that—though at times physically immersive due to the quick and intricate 3D-rendered camera movements—never creates a world to truly be enmeshed in. High adventure happens, and all we can do is don our glasses and look on.