December 10, 2011

The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn (12/10/2011)

Lettergrade: B-

Like a lot of Americans, I can't claim to know a whole lot about The Adventures Of Tintin, the popular adventure comic book series created by Belgian artist Hergé which first debuted in 1929, but Steven Spielberg's motion capture animated film version of it feels like what you would wind up with if the original Raiders Of The Lost Ark were somehow able to fornicate with 2004's The Polar Express.

I was at once thrilled by Spielberg's inventive use of the technology and his amazing staging of the film's many elaborate action scenes, while simultaneously bored out of my mind by the 100% indecipherable plot and by the plentiful interstitial bits which were surprisingly talky and seemed to go on forever.

Will complaints like these make a lick of difference to the film's target audience? I think not… it's billed as exciting adventure spectacle, and for the most part, I suppose that's what it is. I've got to admit, though, that I found myself checking my watch only about 45 minutes into the thing, and although the picture is only 106 minutes, it really wasn't paced in a way that kept it engaging for the whole time. I blame the story development, which is slim to non-existent...

Tintin (played by Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) is a young Belgian reporter always on the look-out for the next big story. Snowy, his faithful fox terrier, usually tags along, and somehow keeps on saving his ass at key moments. In this picture, the first of a planned trilogy - the second part of which is slated to be directed by The Lord Of The Rings' Peter Jackson, who was a producer on this one - Tintin stumbles across an old model ship, which contains a mysterious scroll that might point the way to an ancient treasure that was lost at sea (or something). Not sure how he believes that's going to translate to an exciting article that will sell newspapers, but whatever.

Tintin's adventures lead him to meet up with Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis, whose previous motion-capture roles include Gollum, King Kong, and the main ape from this last summer's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. Haddock is a hopeless alcoholic, and some of the weirdest aspects of the movie are the many, many P.S.A.s where Tintin goes on about how he really shouldn't drink so much. Another scene, though, shows us a Captain Haddock who was forced to become sober against his will and who, as a result, cannot remember any of the important information that he needs to remember in order to move the plot forward. Snowy fixes that by tricking him into drinking some rubbing alcohol, which jump starts his memory for some unexplained reason (and even more surprisingly, doesn't cause him to get incredibly ill).

As I was saying, I found that I had trouble enjoying the film because it really doesn't get you invested in the characters at all (perhaps counting on one's nostalgia for the comic books to supply that). There's even an uncomfortably lengthy back-story scene with Haddock mid way through that is borderline unwatchable as we're shown things unrelated to what he's talking about and are assaulted by some cool action bits which, I guess, are designed to distract you from the fact that what you're seeing doesn't make any sense. More importantly, though, that gigantic scene didn't land at all for me because I honestly didn't feel like I knew much about this drunken asshole, and frankly, I did not - and do not - give a shit about whether or not he happened to reclaim his family's fortune, which, by the way, seemed to be culled from towns that his ancestors pillaged violently.

Oddly, other than the film's clear allusions to previous Spielberg movies like Raiders and Jaws, I thought of 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox more than anything else during this one. Not because there are any similarities to speak of between the two, but because that film eerily retained much of director Wes Anderson's kinks, obsessions, and director style, and the same is true of Spielberg and this one. Spielberg clearly had a lot of fun orchestrating action sequences that could never be done in live-action, such as the show-stopping segment late in the film where our heroes chase the bad guys through a town while it basically breaks down around them… all in a single shot! I also believe he got a kick out of directing Snowy, whom the camera follows through all sorts of crazy side-adventures that would be unfilmable with were everything not computer generated.

We haven't seen Spielberg in popcorn movie mode terribly often since 1993, and whenever he ventures back, the results can vary between weirdly self-important, off-puttingly dour as in The Lost World and War Of The Worlds, among others, or flat out bad like 2008's Indiana Jones 4. His best pictures during the last 18 years have been his historical dramas and low-key character-based pictures like Catch Me If You Can, which is the sort of thing that only someone of his clout and skill could get made on the scale that he made it.

If nothing else, The Adventures Of Tintin marks Spielberg's long-awaited return to the good-natured adventure flick. It's a good ride, even if it is ultimately a bit light on luxuries like logic and substance.

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