Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Thrills, spills and great 3D frills

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for plenty of peril and action violence
By Derrick Bang

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson respectfully honor their source material during the opening scene of The Adventures of Tintin, which finds the intrepid boy reporter having himself sketched by a street artist ... who bears an uncanny resemblance to the character’s Belgian creator.
A "simple" plane ride is anything but, when intrepid boy reporter Tintin is
involved; our young hero and his faithful canine sidekick, Snowy, barely
survive a crash-landing in the desert. The bigger question: Will the nasty
jolt stir long-forgotten memories in Tintin's companion, Captain Haddock, so
that they can get on with their treasure quest?

Better still, the finished drawing — granted a nod of approval by its subject — is Tintin, as illustrated for close to half a century, from 1929 to ’75, by Georges Prosper Remi, better known by his pen name Hergé.

It’s a brilliant prologue by Spielberg and scripters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, because it immediately connects Hergé’s style and vision with this film’s motion-control characters. Call it a hand-off: much the way George Lazenby faced the camera after his pre-credits escapade in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, acknowledging his having taken over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery, cheerfully quipped, “This never happened to the other fella!”

Spielberg actually begins The Adventures of Tintin with a smashing title credits sequence: very much in the vein of both Hergé’s work and the equally memorable opening credits to 2002’s Catch Me if You Can. As was the case with that earlier Spielberg romp, soundtrack maestro John Williams delivers another deliciously retro title theme, echoing the “cool jazz” mode of his emerging career in the late 1950s and early ’60s. (Williams, let us remember, was the pianist in Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn sessions.)

I place a lot of weight on opening credits, as slick credits often signal great things ahead. That’s absolutely the case here: The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous mash-up of comic book thrills, movie serial clichés and — most particularly — ferociously clever animation that allows exhilarating action sequence “camera angles” that simply wouldn’t be possible in a live-action film.

And yet this rich, suspenseful fantasy feels very much like a live-action film, thanks to next-gen motion-control visual effects geniuses Joe Letteri, Scott E. Anderson and Jamie Beard. The “dead eye problem” — which turned the children of The Polar Express into creepy zombies — is no longer an issue; Spielberg also wisely avoided the trap of using animated characters who resemble the film’s “stars,” which made Jim Carrey’s version of A Christmas Carol equally weird, for different reasons.

No, with the exception of that initial tip of the hat to Hergé, these characters look like fully dimensioned versions of their graphic novel selves, and definitely not like the actors voicing the parts. Tintin and his spectacularly resourceful dog, Snowy, are realized superbly; I’m also impressed by the fidelity with which bumbling inspectors Thomson and Thompson have been brought to life.

And once again demonstrating that great 3D effects need only the involvement of an intelligent filmmaker who truly understands how to exploit the process — witness James Cameron, with Avatar, and Martin Scorsese, with the recently released Hugo — Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski do great things here. The usual 3D gimmicks are held to a minimum — as when the villain jabs his cane directly into our faces, at one point — in favor of hell-for-leather action scenes that grant the total immersion of an amusement park motion-control ride.

An audacious, just-keeps-getting-better chase scene through the streets of Bagghar, Morocco is the obvious high point, although numerous other skirmishes unfold with impressive visual imagination and plenty of pizzazz. (Editor Michael Kahn, take a bow).

Additionally, the project has the gritty, 1950s FILM NOIR sensibilities of a hard-charging crime saga, which more than justifies the PG rating. The villains here are rough trade, with plenty of gunfire exchanged on both sides. Tintin himself isn’t shy about using a pistol, and the peril comes with plenty of edge-of-the-seat suspense.

The story — blended from Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure — opens as Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) purchases a model ship from a street vendor. Within seconds, he’s fending off counter-offers for this same replica, the most insistent from the smarmy, bearded Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

Tintin’s model ship soon is stolen, but only after a minor accident that leaves a tiny metal cylinder hidden behind a chest of drawers. Believing Sakharine to be responsible, Tintin follows a lead to dilapidated Marlinspike Hall, where he finds both his quarry and a second model of the same ship: the Unicorn, lost at sea long, long ago.

Sakharine’s manner quickly becomes less pleasant, and before long Tintin is kidnapped, stuffed into a packing crate and loaded onto a ship bound for ... somewhere. Snowy manages to sneak aboard (of course!), and before long our young hero escapes from a cell and tries to figure out what the heck is going on.

This leads to an unexpected meeting with the ship’s equally trapped Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who — as “the last of the Haddocks” — is believed to know something about the fate of the actual Unicorn. Alas, Haddock’s memory isn’t what it used to be, possibly due to his fondness for great quantities of alcohol.

Indeed, this concept of a “sympathetic lush” is as retro as everything else in the story; that stereotype went out a generation ago, with Dudley Moore’s starring role in the original Arthur. The difference, in a nod to 21st century sensibilities, is that Tintin clearly disapproves of this weakness in Haddock’s character, and isn’t shy about voicing his displeasure.

The rapidly unfolding caper somehow involves the Unicorn replicas, with their concealed messages, and the rumored “secret cargo” supposedly carried by the original sailing vessel. Sakharine wants that cargo, whatever it is and wherever it might be, and he’ll stop at nothing to obtain it.

The plot unfolds at a rapid clip, although expository details emerge in easily digestible bits; the pell-mell skirmishes that involve ships, planes, shifting desert sands and the exotic Bagghar follow each other logically, and with a steadily building intensity.

Bell is properly earnest as the unstoppably curious Tintin, who justifies his often foolhardy persistence by insisting that — as a journalist — he needs to get the whole story. (The average foreign correspondent looks awfully sedate, by comparison!) Serkis blends wounded dignity, genuine misery and ill-advised impetuousness into his performance as Haddock, a character in desperate need of redemption.

The comic-relief Thomson and Thompson are hilariously voiced by British bad boys Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, who’ve teamed so well in projects such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul.

Craig is somewhat less satisfying as Sakharine; his voice shifts so often, with no continuity of accent or inflection, that we’re never able to get a bead on the man.

Nestor (Enn Reitel), the long-serving butler of Marlinspike Hall, also is a mystery ... and a rather unsatisfying one. His initial allegiance to Sakharine seems odd, particularly in light of what occurs later; the script never adequately deals with his motivations, or the reasons for same.

Such minor quibbles aside, Spielberg orchestrates everything with the élan we’d expect from the crowd-pleasing veteran of the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park entries. Spielberg has an unerring sense of pacing, and he also knows how and when to inject humor, as with a light-hearted sequence involving the need to secure some keys from a sleeping sailor.

And Snowy is a marvel of canine pluck and resourcefulness: in some ways the story’s most engaging and fully rounded character.

Longtime Tintin fans also will appreciate this film’s many faithful touches, such as the brief appearance by glass-shattering opera singer Bianca Castafiore; Tintin’s reliable landlady, Mrs. Finch, who gets off a cute line; and Haddock’s many colorful outbursts (“Blistering barnacles!” “Thundering typhoons!”).

All that said, and despite this film’s many, many virtues, Spielberg and Jackson must recognize the uphill battle they face. Despite Tintin’s longtime fame around the world — and most particularly in Western Europe — the character never made more than a minor dent here in the States, where his name draws little beyond blank stares. Indeed, a recent Sacramento preview was sparsely attended, drawing no more than perhaps 50 viewers, while — across town — a competing advance screening of the new Chipmunks flick had turnaway crowds.

One can but groan.

Well, such folks don’t know what they missed. The Adventures of Tintin is a grand thrill ride from master filmmakers, and it well deserves both a massive audience and enough box-office action to justify the sequel promised in the closing scene.

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