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Entries in Adventures of Tintin [2011] (1)

Friday
Dec232011

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

Rip-snoring Adventure

Thank God for The Internet Movie Database. Had this incredibly convenient font of movie knowledge not been available, my review of The Adventures of Tintin would probably be about four sentences long. So instantaneous was my amnesia of the characters' names, motivations, and actions that I could barely hang on to what was happening from scene to scene--let along trying to piece things together hours later, after the fact.

It's not that the movie is too complicated; in truth, the plot could only be easier to figure out if it was displayed as pre-credits title cards. The problem is that the cutting-edge animation is so awful, so distracting, that I couldn't hear anything that was coming from the mouths of the ghastly humanoids on screen over my bellowing inner monologue.

But thanks to IMDb and Wikipedia, I can inform you that Tintin is about Tintin (Jamie Bell), a young newspaper reporter living in 1940s Europe with his faithful, spunky terrier, Snowy. He's made a globetrotting career out of returning long, lost treasures to museums and foiling bad-guy schemes. One day, he buys a model pirate ship from a street vendor--a ship that turns out to be one of three models/keys to a real-life pirate's treasure.

Tintin is pursued by the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who wants the loot for himself. In evading his crew of generic henchmen, Tintin meets Haddock (Andy Serkis), the drunk, seafaring ancestor of the pirate who'd buried the treasure. What follows is over an hour-and-a-quarter of jeep chases through the desert, biplane mishaps, and narrow escapes from evildoers on boats and in dusty, North African cities.

No, I didn't mistakenly copy/paste part of my Raiders of the Lost Ark review into this one. The Adventures of Tintin is an uninspired rehash of the Indiana Jones franchise and, essentially, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie (which everyone's been clamoring for since the last one came out in May). But at least those movies had Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp to carry them.* This film's lead is a weird-looking CGI creation who's got the aw-shucks personality of a comic-strip sidekick and the wardrobe of a twelve-year-old boy--even though Tintin is supposed to be in his twenties.

I'm speculating about that last bit, based on the visual cues the film provided before my mind started to wander. He's obviously not a student, and has the resources and maturity to go continent-hopping on a whim. He also collaborates with two bumbling INTERPOL agents named Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), whose pickpocket-nabbing "B" story provides unfunny relief to the unmoving "A" story. In short, I can't take the Tintin character seriously because his appearance and relationship with the supporting cast are incongruous with his alleged position as an adult. Imagine being asked to believe that Ralphie from A Christmas Story was actually a weird, gun-enthusiast uncle crashing his family's holiday.

You should know that I've never read Hergé's Tintin comics, on which the movie is based. But judging from the version presented here by director Steven Spielberg, I can tell it was a huge influence on Indiana Jones--whose towering status in pop culture, like a snake eating its own tail, is precisely the reason this movie fails so spectacularly. There's literally nothing new to see here, other than next-generation CGI characters.

It's as if Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson, and writers Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat, and Joe Cornish decided to faithfully translate the source material without once considering that audiences are now seventy years and three thousand layers of detached irony removed from its relevance. I suppose if you're three years old, there'll be some measure of surprise when Haddock falls through a clothesline and winds up in a pink woman's dress, but for everyone else, the hundred other gags just like it will fly smilelessly by on the road to Tintin's predictable, sequel-ready conclusion.** This crew of filmmakers is renowned for their innovation and imagination, so it's pretty heartbreaking to see them crap out a story that begs the audience to ignore it in favor of looking at the pretty pictures.

Let's talk about those pictures. Motion-capture animation has come a long way since the dead-eyed-doll days of Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express. Movies like Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved that digital artists can make a human actor wearing a sensor-laden bodysuit into a nine-foot-tall feline alien or a sentient, revolutionary primate. What Spielberg's team have failed to do is to create human beings that successfully traverse the Uncanny Valley. Worse, they don't even attempt to replicate realism--the characters here are exaggerated, cartoon versions of real people.

Tintin himself comes closes to looking like a developmentally arrested hipster you might run into on the street. He's just convincing enough that I wondered why the filmmakers didn't just make him look like Jamie Bell. The other characters, particularly Haddock, are just plain upsetting to look at. There are scenes in which characters' hands, arms, necks, and hair appear to be those of actual, non-CG-enhanced actors. But the faces are nightmarish caricatures of comic-strip lines brought into our reality. They're like the survivors of a Happy Meal factory meltdown, where all the workers emerged with too-big features and sought refuge in show business.

One character, an opera singer named Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) could be Meryl Streep in a fat suit and an evening gown--which begs the question, why didn't Spielberg and company just hire flesh-and-blood actors to play these parts? The answer, I think, is a two-parter:

1. What else is there, really? Had Tintin been a conventional, live-action family movie, I doubt it would have enjoyed nearly as much worldwide success. The story, gags, and set pieces are so beyond played out that the novelty of 3D-animated characters (and, I suppose, the love of the comics) is the only thing that could put asses in seats to the tune of a quarter-billion dollars. As live action, this thing likely would have fizzled out in a weekend (as it may here in the U.S.).

2. Ian Malcom's Unheeded Warning. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park character, "Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should." I'm all for advancing moviemaking technology, but these continued attempts to create the perfect human need to be seriously reconsidered. To what end are these artists and producers pushing the limits of believability? Stylized and/or realistic humanoids might work fine for video games, where the player essentially creates their reality as they go, but film is an entirely different medium. It's meant to sell a specific reality to the audience, and if the audience is too distracted by the non-reality of what they're being asked to accept, then there's no point in bothering to tell a story (see The Adventures of Tintin).

What's especially jarring about the second point is that there's absolutely no reason for this film to have been animated. There are no aliens or giant robots to contend with--just regular people in period clothing going through the motions of other, better stories. Aside from Snowy the dog and some roller-coaster-type action scenes (both of which could have been pulled off with a blend of computer animation and live-action components), there's nothing here that couldn't have been accomplished by live performers (in a bizarre twist, the Sakharine character looks like the actor John Hawkes, but he speaks with Daniel Craig's voice).

If you doubt that the story is the most important element of any cutting-edge CGI film, and insist that Tintin is awesome purely because of the animation, I challenge you to imagine a big-screen, mo-cap-animated version of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Would the pixel-pushed perfection of Kim K's ass cat-walking up and down a photorealistic Rodeo Drive be enough to sustain you for nearly two hours? Or would your brain cry out for more nutrients?

Your honor, I rest my case.

Okay, not quite.

It's a shame that Spielberg, Jackson, and the rest got so caught up in their nostalgia trip that they neglected to create an original--or at least memorable--mythos for this generation to latch onto. The Adventures of Tintin is a circle-jerk of millionaire men-children coasting on technology and name recognition. Their toys may be new-millennium chic, but their ideas are dusty relics that few will even care to find.

*Okay, Depp carried the first Pirates, and had his accounting team send a car for the sequels.

**I realize that a film described as "sequel-ready" should have, by definition, a cliffhanger rather than a conclusion. But I'm hoping against hope that this thing will flop hard enough in the states that Tintin will go the way of 2007's Golden Compass "franchise".