The Adventures of Tintin

January 7, 2012
Tintin-movie

At the end of this film one has to admire Steven Spielberg’s self-confidence in the way he virtually announces a sequel. Before The Adventures of Tintin hit the screen it was always intended as the first of a trilogy, in collaboration with Peter Jackson, who produced this movie and will direct the next installment.

Spielberg has the track record to feel confident, but this venture is not the typical soulless Hollywood product. Regardless of the high-end production values and an budget of US$130 million, the film still feels like a labour of love by a couple of dedicated fans. To swing this project it probably required two figures such as Spielberg and Jackson because Tintin is hardly a household name in the United States.

For the English-speaking world Tintin has always been a cult fascination. How very different in Europe, especially in France, where gross receipts at the box office have almost doubled production costs, even before the American release.

Qui est Tintin? The creation of Belgian cartoonist, Hergé. Tintin made his debut in 1929, and carried on until the death of his creator in 1982. He is an intrepid teenage reporter who spends much of his time investigating outrageous crimes in exotic parts of the world. For a moment it looked as if Tintin was going to suffer because of the fad for political correctness, which has judged Hergé’s vision of the world to be tainted with colonialist thinking. The same fate threatened Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers, which seemed to reinforce a raft of offensive oriental stereotypes.

Thankfully we have matured to the point where we can take this stuff lightly, not as ideological blasphemy. Fu Manchu is once again available in the bookshops, and Tintin has finally made his way to Hollywood.

The Adventures of Tintin is a tale stitched together from three separate graphic novels, borrowing plot twists and characters in promiscuous fashion. It may not please the purists, but it is calculated to maximise the action in a way that will leave most viewers breathless. The entire movie resembles one long chase, interrupted by occasional flashbacks and set pieces that are just as frenetic.

If action were the only thing on offer this would still be a spectacular entertainment, but the most important part of the film is the tricky task of bringing Tintin and his fellow characters to life. This is no mean feat when your hero is a moon-faced cartoon. Spielberg’s decision to use motion capture technology has been criticised by many who feel that the process falls awkwardly between real action and animation, turning actors into rubber-faced automatons.

This complaint would be justified if the characters were completely devoid of personality, but that is not the case. Jamie Bell as Tintin, Andy Serkis as the bibulous Captain Haddock, and Daniel Craig as the villain, Sakharine; along with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, as the bumbling policemen, Thomson and Thompson, manage to engage us quite as effectively as any fully-drawn cartoon character. Tintin’s faithful mutt, Snowy – a complete fabrication – is probably the star of the film.

Had Tintin been filmed as a conventional motion picture, the stunts and special effects could never have matched the amazing sequences in this wild ride: a hair-raising airplane journey across the desert; the mid-ocean clash of two burning pirate ships; a duel with industrial wharf cranes, and chases that defy description.

We don’t need to know too much about Tintin’s inner life, because he never had one in the original Hergé stories. We know he is a journalist but never see him doing anything so prosaic as writing a story. Even though he is only a teen he has no parents, no family home, no girlfriend (or boyfriend!) and no identifiable source of income that funds his globe-trotting adventures. He is motivated by simple ideals of justice and fair play. Add to this an improbable store of knowledge, the abilities of a skilled athlete, and an amazing degree of luck, and it’s clear there is not much room for gritty realism in this portrait.

The great story-tellers, in literature and in the cinema, know there is no need to provide explanations for everything. Let the action flow freely and disbelief will be suspended. No-one will ever ask where Tintin went to school, not even in Melbourne.

If Tintin seems a little too squeaky clean, this is where Captain Haddock steps in. Drunken, impulsive, given to violent rages, Haddock has a catalogue of vices to match Tintin’s virtues. This is a brilliant mix and a constant source of comedy. Snowy has a little of both characters in his make-up. He is as steadfast and resourceful as Tintin, but a creature of impulse, like Haddock. In the most stressful moments he is likely to go chasing a cat or hunting for bones. Even though he is the only genuine cartoon in the film, he is probably the most human.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ua_4ajpP58

Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 7, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin, USA/New Zealand, Rated PG, 107 minutes