Somewhere around the middle of Steven Spielberg’s new motion-capture Tintin movie, there is an image of the young journalist and his companion, Captain Haddock, trudging through the desert with only handkerchiefs for sun hats, their bodies silhouetted against yellow sand and blue sky. It is a picture lifted straight from a Tintin album, full of the boyish charm of the original books by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Too bad The Adventures of Tintin doesn’t capture that charm more often.
Tintin was successfully adapted for television in the 1990s by Nelvana, in part because the Canadian animation house was scrupulously faithful to Hergé’s original drawings and stories, but the character has never made the leap to the big screen convincingly despite various European attempts at animated and live-action Tintins. It’s tempting to think all that was missing was technology as versatile as motion-capture and a director with some Hollywood chutzpah – tempting but wrong, as it turns out that Spielberg and his computer-generated effects overwhelm the project.
For a script, the screenwriters borrow the pirate-treasure plot from The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, add in the tale of how Tintin and Haddock first met from The Crab with the Golden Claws, and whip up a lot more story of their own to produce something that meanders, not always comprehensibly, from Europe to the high seas to North Africa and back again.
Along the way, they have missed much of Hergé’s sometimes subtle wit. When not simply repeating the malapropisms of Thompson and Thomson, the script seems strangely at a loss for jokes: As Haddock makes a crack about another sailor’s experiments in animal husbandry, you have to wonder if you heard him correctly. Bestiality jokes in a Spielberg movie?
Aside from the off-colour humour, Andy Serkis’s Haddock is particularly disappointing; the character’s drinking is much emphasized while his endearing irascibility has been toned down, leaving us with little more than an irritating alcoholic. On the other hand, Jamie Bell’s Tintin is increasingly convincing, providing an understated performance that interprets the optimism and courage of a cartoon hero as an admirable directness of personality.
He doesn’t look much like the original cartoon; indeed he doesn’t look much like a cartoon at all: The motion-capture animation works best when used to produce an impressive degree of naturalism. Haddock and Thompson and Thomson, on the other hand, have bulbous, cartoon noses that loom disgustingly large in close-up, let alone 3-D. They seem out of place in the realer world inhabited both by Tintin and, more surprisingly, by Daniel Craig’s sly version of a villainous Red Rackham who never resorts to mere cackling. These performances represent key instances in which Spielberg seems to have made the material his own rather than simply reproducing the surface of the books while missing their depths.
There is also a spectacular chase sequence, the film’s own whimsical invention, in which Tintin mounts a motor bike to pursue a falcon through the steep streets of a storybook North African city. Unfortunately, it is sandwiched between a confusing rendition of the sea battle with the pirates and an exhausting encounter between duelling cargo cranes in a European port, scenes that may impress the video-game generation but will leave parents with headaches. After that the film returns again to the plot from the books for what is now a hurried and rather confusing ending.
Hergé was the pioneer of an even-handed style of cartooning with solid lines and no shading that became known as ligne claire, but there is a decided lack of clear lines in this erratic movie adaptation of his work.
The Adventures of Tintin
- Written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish
- Directed by Steven Spielberg
- Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig
- Classification: PG
- 2 stars (out of 4)