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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg transforms comic books into 3-D extravaganza

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For some moviegoers, the creepiest film ever made wasn't The Exorcist or even Saw, but Polar Express. The story was certainly as agreeable as eggnog, but the motion-capture filmmaking, transforming real actors into something less than human, was unsettling. Although the extent of motion capture's improvement for The Adventures of Tintin will be debated, the movie's state-of-the-art 3-D eclipses all else visually and carries—make that sweeps away—the day. Even the Paramount and Columbia logos float in space like holograms at the onset of the film, and as the plot builds steam, the telescopes of pirates and other seafarers jut from the screen, threatening to poke audience members in the ribs.

The story's boy reporter-sleuth is known all over the world—except in the United States. Generations of children in many countries have grown up with the comic books, and even casual tourists can stumble over Tintin as a Saturday morning cartoon on the hotel room TV. Director Steven Spielberg became interested in Tintin after someone suggested that those stories, with their relentless momentum and exotic settings, were a precursor to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took Spielberg decades to get around to his rendition of the international boy hero, years in which at least one prospective star grew too old even as technology improved. The result of the long wait is impressive entertainment, a kinetic extravaganza whose fault might lie in Spielberg's refusal to admit that a little less spectacle might have added to the story.

With his close-cropped orange hair and upswept cowlick, Spielberg's Tintin could be anywhere from 12 to 18 by appearance. The chipper fellow (played by Jamie Bell) shares his own apartment with his faithful and resourceful dog Snowy (conjured by means of traditional animation). The plot, derived from several World War II-era Tintin tales, involves a model sailing ship, a family curse, a lost treasure, bumbling but well meaning Interpol agents and snidely villain Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig), whose disposition is anything but sweet. Kidnapped by Sakharine's henchmen and held in the belly of a rusty freighter, Tintin and Snowy make common cause with the ship's alcoholic skipper, Captain Haddock (Andy “Gollum” Serkis), which leads to much hide and seek in the hold, a daring escape on a stormy sea, a harrowing ride on a seaplane and a crash landing in the Sahara.

The genius of Tintin's author, the late Belgian writer Hergé, was his confident grasp of the role-playing action games boys play. Spielberg and his screenwriting team had no trouble entering the mindset of 10-year-olds playing good guys vs. bad guys. Tintin's detractors accuse the original stories of imperialism, even racism, which is probably true but not entirely relevant. Like the American creators of Betty Boop and Popeye, Hergé was a storyteller, not a profound social thinker, who composed his tales from the material of the popular culture (and popular attitudes) at hand. Spielberg pokes a bit of fun at all nationalities represented in the delightfully imagined, mid-20th-century setting of manual typewriters, shapely automobiles and propeller planes. In its best moments, The Adventures of Tintin achieves what Martin Scorsese hoped to do in Hugo by connecting cinema to its roots in the magic shows of yore
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