- - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

“The Adventures of Tintin” is a first-rate yarn that will introduce a new generation of moviegoers to the pleasures of director Steven Spielberg, while reminding those of us old enough to remember the theatrical run of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that the old master hasn’t lost his touch.

There is also an introduction to be made, at least to the American mass audience, to the comic serial character Tintin himself. He’s a school-age Belgian journalist with an aggressively tufted blond forelock and a knack for getting himself into dangerous situations. His boon companion is a white fox terrier named Snowy, whose resourcefulness and indomitability help keep Tintin from coming to great harm. There’s not much to say about Tintin himself - he’s an inoffensive, spritely sort with few defining characteristics other than his instincts for bravery, curiosity and loyalty. But he’s surrounded by a motley menagerie of characters, many of whom pop up in this film.

The movie takes its cue from the 1943 Tintin adventure, “The Secret of the Unicorn.” The Unicorn is an antique model ship Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases from a street vendor that has a mysterious appeal to the dastardly Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who is willing to kill to acquire it. In trying to recover the stolen artifact, Tintin stumbles upon a series of clues that explain the connection between the model ship and a pirate battle that took place centuries ago, in the era of ocean-going schooners. Along the way, Tintin meets his friend Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a dipsomaniac sailor who has a personal stake in solving the puzzle.

Tintin” achieves its peculiar look through motion capture, which blends the work of real actors and digital animation to render a world that is faithful to the high-contrast, four-color look of the old Tintin comics, while adding new layers of complexity and motion. The characters look like animations, with digitally exaggerated and enhanced features that blur the line between cartoon and live action.

The settings of the Tintin comics are typically minimalist, so the art direction takes a few liberties with the source material to include elaborately detailed ships, mansions, city streets and a mysterious Saharan principality seemingly modeled on Morocco.

Mr. Spielberg ratchets up the tension with action sequences that are progressively more exciting. He uses 3-D in a novel way - to show action from the perspective of a shifting horizontal plane. In the film’s most breathtaking sequence, two burning ships collapse into each other, as pirates and navy sailors skitter down flaming masts to do battle. Because the 3-D doesn’t rely on in-your-face effects, it seems likely that the film would be nearly as enjoyable in a 2-D projection.

Though largely faithful to the spirit of the Tintin comics, the movie also plays like a museum of Mr. Spielberg. Tintin is shown swimming, and his forelock slices through the waves like a shark’s dorsal fin. In another sequence, a chase nearly destroys an entire North African city, recalling the politically incorrect aplomb of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lost in the desert, Snowy happens to stumble upon a giant dinosaur bone. These playful references show the director at the top of his game, mastering new technologies and methods of filmmaking while staying true to the spirit of adventure, suspense and the unknown that made his films from the 1970s and 1980s so enduring.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Adventures of Tintin

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series by Herge

RATING: PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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