Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Not a Dog

My partner lives under a rock. When I asked if she wanted to go see Tintin with me, she said, "That's about a dog, right?" I tried not to facepalm, and mostly succeeded. "No," I said, "That's Rin Tin Tin. There is a dog, but Tintin isn't the dog." I imagine that more than one American has had a variant of this conversation. Tintin isn't well-known here in the states, and this is a blockbuster that seems designed for the world market rather than the domestic one. The numbers on Box Office Mojo appear to bear this out.

So, anyway, my new year began with The Adventures of Tintin (2011, directed by Steven Spielberg). I'm a HUGE fan of the comics, so all of the previews of a motion-capture, lifelike, computer animated Tintin did not bode well. I mean, Herge's comics are known for their clean lines and their flat colors. They're elegant and simple. This is an element of the comics that this movie does not capture. Which isn't to say it's bad, necessarily. For what it is, it's an entertaining two hours at the movies from a director who was the best in the world at providing entertainments once upon a time. It's frustrating, though, because given the resources lavished on this movie, it should be better than it is.

The story, for the most part, gets it right. Intrepid young reporter, Tintin, buys a model ship in an open-air market that turns out to have the secret to a fabulous treasure inside it. Two other parties are interested in the ship: the secretive Mr. Silk, and the sinister Mr. Sakharhine. Mr. Silk warns Tintin that there are others that will stop at nothing for the ship, and sure enough, he soon finds his home burglarized and the ship stolen, but not before a chance accident deposits a clue in Tintin's hands. This sends him to Marlinspike Hall, where he encounters Mr. Sakharine and another model ship exactly like his own, only unbroken. There are three of them, and each holds a clue to the location of the treasure of the lost Unicorn. The clues tell everyone that only a descendant of that ship's captain can find the treasure, which leads Sakharine and Tintin to Captain Haddock, the last living Haddock. Haddock is being held prisoner by Sakharine. Sakharine has an ulterior motive for kidnapping Haddock beyond just finding the treasure. Tintin and Haddock escape and find themselves adrift at sea, heading for the small middle-eastern country of Baggar, where the third clue is held by the Sultan. Sakharine is hot on their heels, with a secret weapon designed to obtain the third ship: an opera singer named Bianca Castafiore, whose voice shatters the glass case that protects the ship. The chase is then on to prevent Sakharine from finding the treasure. This is all conflated from two classic Tintin adventures, "The Secret of the Unicorn" and "Red Rackham's Treasure," with nods to other stories. Screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish demonstrate a deep affection for the material here.

It's easy to see why Herge himself decided that Spielberg was the perfect filmmaker to make a Tintin movie. His adventures are kid-friendly globetrotting adventures a la the Indiana Jones movies. Spielberg, it should be noted, did not grow up with Tintin. One of his assistants brought him one of the books right after the premiere of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and for what it's worth, this movie is better than a couple of the subsequent Indiana Jones films. Indeed, this is Spielberg returning to pure entertainment for the first time in ages and it finds the director in fine fettle. He still knows how to stage an action scene. Unlike most directors who lose themselves in motion capture technology--Robert Zemeckis springs to mind--Spielberg hasn't made a film that seems un-directed. It's as carefully composed as any of his live-action films. This is a strength. On the whole this should all work. The ingredients are all in place for a magnificent film. In some ways, it IS a magnificent film.

But it doesn't work, and I think it's because the technology used to make the film is overcomplex for the task at hand. While I was watching the movie, I had a couple of thoughts that really jarred me out of the movie. The most persistent of these was: if you're going to make an animated Tintin movie, why aren't you making it in a hand-drawn, 2-D style. This would more closely hew to one of the key artistic pleasures of Herge's original and the movie itself suggests this with an absolutely delightful credit sequence that demonstrates just what the movie could have been. More than once, I wondered what a Studio Ghibli version of Tintin might look like. I also began to wonder why, having animated the thing with computers and motion capture, that the film tries so resolutely to present "realistic" characters while keeping the stylized exaggeration of a cartoon character. This reminds me a little of those freakish "realistic" cartoon characters drawn by Pixeloo. This is unintentionally grotesque. This has an interesting effect on Tintin himself, who reads fine as a cartoon character on the page, but in this film, I couldn't shake the idea that Tintin was a baby dyke lesbian. The haircut, the diminutive status, and the wardrobe all scream "queer" to me. That might be my baggage talking and not a fault of the film, per se, but Tintin doesn't read as Tintin to my eye. The only character in the film that seems completely "natural" is Tintin's dog, Snowy, who was significantly created from whole cloth by an animator rather than mocapped. Speaking of Snowy, I kind of missed his occasional asides (in the comics, placed in thought balloons), but I guess I understand why the filmmakers decided to forgo them. Basically, all of this occupies a space between live action and cartoon and it's not comfortable there. It really should have been one or the other.

It's hard for me to really judge vocal performances, but on the whole, the performances in this film match the characters. Jamie Bell has the right kind of youthful pluck in his voice, while mocap expert Andy Serkis is a fine Captain Haddock. I'm always happy when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost show up in movies, but they don't seem to stand out as Thompson and Thompson, the bumbling interpol agents, though that may actually be the point. Daniel Craig voices a fine villain. You may notice that all of these voices are Brits, which strikes me as wrong. Tintin should be in French, and if you're going to make a Tintin movie in English, a British accent is completely wrong as your go-to European accent. Better no accent at all, though that's probably not possible.

I saw this film in 3-D, and I'll complain about that again. 3-D doesn't serve this film. I've seen some commentary on the internet that claims that this film uses 3-D intelligently, but if you're not calling attention to something in the frame, what's the point. At a certain point, not far into the movie, I ceased to even register the 3-D beyond the fact that I wished the picture was brighter. Alas.


J Luis Rivera said...

Spielberg's Tintin does look like a grown sized baby. The lesbian thing is your baggage perhaps :) but it's certainly grotesque.

Chris Hewson said...

I still haven't seen this but I'm looking forward too since I'm a fan of the comics (like I am with Asterix and The Phantom (and others that I can't think off at the moment), which are either nonexistant in the states or only barely).