[National Review Online; Dec 21, 2011]
I have 11 grandchildren. I see plenty of children’s movies. I have acquired a jaundiced eye. As autumn leaves drift into piles, as souvenir teacups proliferate around a royal wedding, thus do crass, crude, cynical children’s movies pile up around the family DVD player.
Until now. The Adventures of Tintin is superb. Grandparents everywhere will babble tearful thanks: it’s so much better than it had to be, given the industry’s steadily decreasing quality (everywhere but Pixar-land). Credit must go to both the stars at the helm, Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings) and Steven Spielberg (of too many hits to mention), and the new technologies (motion-capture animation, improved 3-D process) deserve a toast as well. However, none of this would be here without the hero himself.
Tintin, the creation of the Belgian comic-strip artist known as Herge´ (1907-1983), is a boyish newspaper reporter of remarkable courage, who travels the world in pursuit of stories that reliably expose him to life-threatening danger. He appeared first in a story called “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” in which the brave youngster went to the Soviet Union to report on the world Josef Stalin was building—a world of artificial famine, phony elections, and political assassination. These stories, originally created for a children’s supplement to the conservative Roman Catholic weekly Le XXe Siecle, were an instant success. Book-length collections have sold over 200 million copies in 50 languages. Up till now, Tintin has not been well known in the U.S., but get ready for that to change.
The style of Herge´’s drawings is so distinctive—black lines surrounding each element, so that it stands out in simplicity—that news that a 3-D film version was under way was cause for concern among longtime fans. There was potential disaster in any Tintin movie, but a flashy commercial 3-D version sounded worst of all. Dear Tintin’s familiar head is a sphere, with black dots for features and a peg for a nose. Any tampering with that (made cuter? More loveable?) was bound to be disastrous.
The movie’s first scene handles this problem brilliantly. It opens with someone—we don’t see his face—having his portrait made by an artist at an outdoor market. The artist finds his subject familiar, and it turns out to be Tintin himself. We see Snowy, his companionable white fox terrier, sniffing around, and hear Tintin say that he’s a journalist, but don’t see his face. Finally the artist hands him the finished portrait, saying “I think I have captured something of your likeness.” The image shows the classic round head and button eyes of comic-book Tintin. Only then does the camera pan up (so to speak) and show us a more realistic-looking young man, who’s obviously the real Tintin; the “portrait” is only a cartoon. Very smooth touch, there.
It’s hard not to gush over production values, but first let’s talk about entertainment values. This is a relentlessly exciting movie, and that’s what comes closest to being a flaw. In that regard the movie is entirely faithful to the comics, which send Tintin rocketing (sometimes literally) from one scrape to another. Something is always blowing up, falling down, racing past, battling against, soaring aloft, jumping upon, or diving beneath. Sitting around, not so much. The stories are leavened with fine humor (provided, for example, by the inept detectives Thomson and Thompson), which prevents the stolid self-importance that afflicts some superhero movies. Still, all this breathless swinging from one cliffhanger to the next can be tiring.
In this story, Tintin buys an intricate ship model and brings it home, only to find that someone is willing to kill to possess it. He is kidnapped and finds himself on an old cargo ship, steaming away to parts unknown. The quietly ominous Mr. Sakharine has commandeered the ship and turned the crew against their captain, Capt. Haddock, a man a little too prone to drink. (One odd thing about the film is the great number of drunk jokes; alcoholism hasn’t been that funny for many decades now. However, Haddock’s drinking turns out to have a plot purpose, so hang in there.) The ship is bound for “Baggar” in North Africa, and Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy race across the ocean, across the desert, to beat Sakharine there.
Though the action is over-active, it’s more tolerable than it might have been, because the camera prefers small groups of people to large, faceless masses (as in the ponderous and curiously unexciting battle scenes of too many CGI-happy movies ). The excitement here is almost entirely in surface action, rather than in character development, which gives a superficial quality. In trying to amend that, the story provides a moment of doubt for Tintin, in which he is reassured by Haddock. It felt entirely false to me. (I don’t know if such a scene occurs in a Tintin book, but it doesn’t seem likely.)
As much as I enjoyed the hyperactive action scenes (what’s better than two men in capes and feathered hats fighting a duel? How about, on a ship tossing in a storm? while under a pirate attack? Also, with their capes on fire?), I savored the little humor notes even more. These go by fast, but bring delight: among the peddlers in the streets of Baggar, there’s one guy selling a snowglobe. With every wave of the sea, the ship’s sleeping crew slither and slide from one bunk to the next. The wealthy sheik collects art, and the statues are lined up: a marble Greek maiden, a golden Hindu goddess, and a head from Easter Island. Thompson and Thomson having an argument: “I met you first!” “No, I met you first!”
Even though this is an animated film, it’s hard not to speak of the camera panning or going in for a closeup, because the images are presented just as they would be in a live-action film. There are also visual extras that flaunt the abilities of animation has over ordinary film, like creative, eye-pleasing transitions: a boat on a boundless ocean becomes a boat on a mud puddle, then a shoe splashes into the puddle—and we’re into the next scene. It seems the artists set themselves extra challenges, depicting scenes through various distorting media: through water, through glass, reflected in a mirror, and so on. At one point, a glob of whiskey is floating in weightlessness, and we see through its liquid amber mass at as it moves around. They didn’t have to do that, but they did.
The characters were portrayed by actors wearing motion-capture suits, a process that is improving by the minute. (Andy Serkis, who portrays Capt. Haddock, is getting to be an expert at this; he was much praised for his Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.) Curiously enough, I found the “uncanny valley” effect to be absent from Tintin. This is the term for the unease that people feel when seeing a robotic or animated character that is a little too real. There’s a spectrum: a character that is only generally humanoid can be appealing to an observer, and as it grows more realistic, empathy increases. But at some point it becomes too humanoid, and suddenly the observer feels, instead, revulsion. There’s a point at which a realistic character becomes just plain creepy. However, if the realism continues to increase after that, at some point the character becomes once again appealing. The “valley” is that dip between likeable not-realistic and likeable quite-realistic, where the character appears to be human with something missing. People feel profoundly unsettled by such characters.
To me, the Christmas movie Polar Express falls in that uncanny valley; the characters are, to me, eerie and unnerving. Tintin is the first animated movie I’ve seen that crossed all the way over, back to appealing realism. All the characters are more lifelike than the ones we’re used to seeing in animated movies, and I regularly forgot that this was not a live-action movie.
The long school vacation from Christmas through New Year’s has always been a prime time for studios to launch kids’ movies; sometimes, you just have to get out of the house. Many a year, the possibilities were not too appealing. Give thanks, this Christmas, for a Tintin that the whole family can enjoy, and hope for a New Year in which we’ll see many more great kids’ movies.