Revised and completed Saturday morning.
Captain Haddock and our hero, the boy reporter Tintin, survive their latest brush with death just in time to begin another one in Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s exhilarating motion-capture cartoon adaptation of the Herge comic books, The Adventures of Tintin.
Billions of blistering blue barnacles! Steven Spielberg has turned Tintin into a Steven Spielberg movie!
There’s action galore. Stunts that if they weren’t performed by cartoons would make your head spin. Well, actually, they do make your head spin even though they’re performed by cartoons because you can forget you’re watching a cartoon while you’re watching this cartoon, that’s how smoothly these motion captured characters move and how realistically rendered and colored the backgrounds against which they move are. There’s comedy in the midst of grave danger. Grave danger behind the comedy. A plot that runs away with itself so fast you pant to catch up and don’t have time to notice how slight and ridiculous it is. And throughout there are tributes, shout-outs, and homages to the movie serials and Sunday comics that fired the imagination of the young Spielberg--Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant, The Phantom---as well as to Spielberg’s own movies, and…um…Tintin.
In fact, The Adventures of Tintin is as good an Indiana Jones movie as Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. In parts, it’s as thrilling and new as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Throughout, it’s much, much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and a reminder that as great as the young Harrison Ford was what made the Indy movies was the spirit of adventure that infused them, and that spirit was a boy’s (and girl’s) spirit. Indy’s movies, the Saturday serials and Sunday comics and the boy’s own adventure novels that came before, Jules Verne, the works of H.G. Wells, Jack London, Mark Twain, and Edgar Rice Burroughs that inspired Spielberg and George Lucas, Tintin---Herge’s comics and this cartoon---present a world in which a kid’s dream of what adult life ought to be like comes true. There may be an actual kid up on the screen, filling the frame, or driving the story, or there may not be (although all the adults are really overgrown children), it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a world in which it’s possible for a kid to be a hero.
That Spielberg, with help from another great lover of boys own adventures, Peter Jackson, has done directly with Herge and Tintin what he’s done allusively in the past with Verne and Wells and Milt Caniff is one way of looking at it.
Another is that the movie is Spielberg’s way of saying, “It may not have all started with Tintin, but it might as well have because it’s all there in Herge’s comics.”
This raises two competing questions.
Will you enjoy the movie if you’re not familiar with the comic books?
If you’ve loved and enjoyed the comic books will the movie disappoint you?
The editors of the Mannionville Daily Gazette answered both questions through practical experiment. We took two of our nephews and our two sons to the movie. The nephews, ages 17 and 13, had only a passing introduction to the comic books which came from our two sons, ages 18 and 15, who grew up reading the books and own almost the entire collection (for some reason they’re missing a couple, Explorers on the Moon and Tintin in Tibet, but they’ve read both). All four boys enjoyed the movie for its own sake. The nephs said they never felt left out or left behind. Young Ken and Oliver Mannion say they were thoroughly caught up and rarely thought of the comic books, but when they did they generally appreciated the changes Spielberg and Jackson had to make for the sake of turning three books---mostly The Secret of the Unicorn but with significant portions of The Crab With the Golden Claws and touches of Red Rackham’s Treasure---into one movie and making that movie their movie.
I didn’t grow up reading Tintin. The trade paperback editions of the comic books weren’t available in the United States until the mid-1970s and I didn’t come across them until the 1980s and didn’t begin to appreciate them until the Mannion boys found them and took them to heart. This doesn’t mean I have only an adult’s or a parent’s fondness for them. I recognized right away what I would have loved about Tintin if I’d discovered the comics at the time I was discovering Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the Hardy Boys.
The movie felt mostly true to the spirit of the books but I was baffled and annoyed the first time I saw the trailer and realized that the movie would not look like the books. But watching the movie I understood why Spielberg and Jackson chose not to make a straight-forward animated version of the comics.
One of the beauties of Herge’s drawings is how motion is implied. Characters (and machines---cars, planes, boats, rocket ships, Professor Calculus’ inventions) are caught on the fly, their direction and momentum felt through posture, angle, and relation in space to other people and objects “moving” in other directions and at different speeds. Send Tintin and his friends and enemies actually running, falling, leaping, careening around corners in cars or on foot, staggering from a blow or (in Captain Haddock’s case) too much to drink, or just shaking a fist or holding a sore head and you’ve already erased much of Herge’s art from the frame. Herge’s genius was in seeming to do on a page what he couldn’t do on a page. Do it on a screen and you’re not doing what he did. A cartoon movie that tried to look like the comic books would be missing what gave the comic books their look.
Why the motion capture? Just because, I guess. Why this style? Why a cartoon at all? Why not a live-action movie with the look and feel of a cartoon, like Mary Poppins or Robert Altman’s Popeye? Spielberg and Jackson have done the opposite of Disney and Altman. Instead of a live-action movie that looks like a cartoon, they’ve opted to make a cartoon that looks like a live-action movie or at least as close as they could come while retaining the freedom from gravity and the laws of physics and biology cartoons offer. They make an in-joke of this, finding a way to suggest that the movie isn’t based on the comic books but that the comic books are based on the movie’s reality. Early on, Tintin sits for his portrait by a sidewalk sketch artist whose drawing of Tintin looks exactly like Herge’s Tintin. The artist, as it happens, looks like Herge.
The things I didn’t like about the animation had nothing to do with it not recapitulating Herge’s style. The characters’ bodies move well but their faces are practically dead. Most of them look like they’re wearing false noses and prosthetic chins and, in some cases, whole masks, as if they’re actors dressed-up and made-up to look like their comic book counterparts. The exceptions are Tintin himself, who looks amazingly and disconcertingly like Neil Patrick Harris, and his dog and sidekick Snowy. Snowy is the most vital character in the film He’s even more active and adventurous, bolder and braver than he is in the comic books. In fact, he’s the second greatest canine action-adventure star of the young 21st Century, the first being Gromit of Wallace & Gromit. So it makes sense that in a marvelous little set-piece of a chase scene, Snowy gets to act out the most direct reference to Indiana Jones.
The movie’s Captain Haddock was a real disappointment to me. Not only is his face wooden and mask-like and unpersonable---in the comic books, Haddock’s very beard is expressive---he’s…punier than he ought to be. Herge’s Captain Haddock has more than a touch of Popeye’s Bluto about him. He’s tall, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested and he’s handsome, in his way, when his hair and beard are combed. Spielberg and his artists have not only shrunk him as a physical specimen, they’ve diminished him as a character as well. Herge’s Haddock is a comic character but the comedy arises from his anger and from the language he uses to express it. Haddock has his own peculiar poetry. Otherwise, though, Haddock is a hero in his own right. He is the books’ second lead and the relationship between Haddock and Tintin is like the one between Han Solo and Luke with no Princess Leia around to make them both act like grown-ups. When he’s introduced in The Crab With the Golden Claws, he’s a clownish drunk, but as he sobers up he quickly reveals himself as a familiar archetype of myth, legend, books, and film, the disgraced warrior restored to form thanks to the example and friendship of the pure-hearted hero. He becomes the true heir of the swashbuckling pirate-hunter Sir Francis Haddock.
When we meet him in the movie, he’s a clownish drunk, but also a blubbering and pathetic one, and the pathos, the blubbering, the clownishness, and the drunk jokes go on much too long. Eventually, he rises to the occasion and gives signs that if the planned sequel gets made he’ll assume his role as heroic second lead, but in this movie he’s more like the buffoonish sidekick accidentally saving the day.
I’m told by both nephews and sons that I’m all wet on this.
At any rate, there is one way the movie definitely doesn’t measure up to the comic books.
The Adventures of Tintin is an enjoyable thrill-ride, but basically it’s one extended chase scene and eventually it loses itself in the chase. Story, plot, characters, and coherence disappear under the constant barrages of action, gunfire, explosions, and crashing machinery. Chases, and fisticuffs and gunplay, are regular features of the comic books, but the point of all the running around is, in the end, to get somewhere, usually home. And the only way to come home is to have been somewhere else. The wheres matter in the comic books.
Herge was assiduous about keeping Tintin up to date and over the course of time televisions, jet planes, and rocket ships made their way into his plots. But Tintin is still a product of the late 1920s and early 30s, a time when the ubiquity of cars and airplanes was opening up long-distance travel to everybody. Suddenly, anyone with the price of a tank of gas or a ticket could rush out their front door and in a very short time be somewhere else, somewhere new and exciting for their never having been there before.
In the books, Tintin’s adventures take place in specific places. Those places may have fictitious names and be designed according to contemporary prejudices and populated with stereotypes, but they were still recognizable as real places, places it would be possible for young readers to visit someday. Herge had to be economical in his use of detail, but he was a diligent and dutiful researcher and the details he chose to include to suggest a place were exact.
The movie’s backgrounds are fuller, more detailed, and busier, but they don’t evoke specific places. They are generic movie studio sets. Tintin and his friends don’t encounter these places, they merely move through them, quickly, and only have to deal with them as obstacles or opportunities.
But in the comic books, they visit these places. Part of the excitement is in going with them to this jungle, down that river, into the heart of this city, or up that mountain. One of the most thrilling panels in all the books shows Tintin and Snowy in a small motor boat making its way across a choppy sea towards Black Island looming ominously out of the water. No human enemies in sight, no threat of violence except from the sea itself. All there is, pulling Tintin towards it and us along with him, is the question, What’s out there?
When you get down to it, even more than he is a reporter and a detective and an action-adventure hero, Tintin is an explorer, and the adventure for him and for us his fans, begins, not with fisticuffs and gunplay, chases, and exploding machinery, but with just getting out the door.
The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg, now playing in theaters.
The best of Herge’s Tintin adventures are available through my aStore.