I had a pretty ambivalent outlook for you at the outset. Sorry to begin so bluntly, but it is true. Even though you are directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, written by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), Steve Moffat (Coupling), and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), there were still some aspects of you that I thought might be deal breakers for me. For one thing, I’m not very familiar with the source material you are based on. Therefore, your appeals to any sense of childhood wonder, nostalgia, or fandom would fall upon deaf ears and blind eyes. Also, while some might be wowed by your overtures of 3D and motion capture technology, I tend to find those gimmicks to be just that – gimmicks. In general, they add nothing, they serve only themselves, and honestly the best 3D is so good I can’t tell I am watching 3D, which means I might as well be watching 2D.
Yet somehow, in spite of the low-slung walls that I had constructed against you almost by accident, you managed to overtake my defenses and provide me with a rollicking, rip-roaring time at the movies. All of the aspects of you which I thought might be repellant to me actually made a lot of sense to me in context, or at least didn’t distract me as much as I thought they would.
Before plunging into the technical stuff, though, let me get my praise for your story out of the way. Tintin (Jamie Bell) is an intrepid journalist cut from the fabric of classic adventure movies from yesteryear. He needs no reason to embark on adventure beyond the thrill of the chase, the high of the hunt, and the joy of uncovering a mystery and discovering the truth. One day, on a whim, he purchases a model of The Unicorn, an old merchant ship, at a street fair and is immediately set upon by a series of people looking to purchase the ship from him. This is all the impetus Tintin needs to begin an investigation that will take him far and wide in search of the truth. Along the way he will meet sultans, bumbling INTERPOL agents (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), villainous falconers (Daniel Craig), and a soused sea captain clinging bitterly to his glory days.
There will be chases, gun fights, fist fights, pirate ship battles, sword fights, and revelations of truths and secrets years in the past. Tintin and the libation-loving Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) are hot on the trail of the lost Unicorn and let nothing stand in the way of the quest. Watching these two go from strangers with a shared goal to understanding friends to perfect swashbuckling companions is one of the subtler joys of your narrative, sandwiched in-between and within a series of masterfully staged actions set pieces. One of these pieces, a pirate battle in which one ship swings wildly in the rigging of the other, makes you wish that the people behind The Pirates of the Caribbean had been able to time travel in order to take notes. The other, a chase through the streets of a Moroccan city, follows at least four different pursuers in a single fluid tracking shot completely free of edits. (Had I seen you earlier this scene definitely would have made it into my piece on long takes.)
And what of the things that I thought might sour my time with you? Well it turns out that they didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought they might. Part of this was due to the strength of your narrative and the blistering pace of your tale. The fact that your motion capture technology and 3D are some of the best used, most well-deployed examples of those two technologies to date does not hurt either. Luckily, since the bulk of the characters in this tale are closely modeled off of the original illustrated characters from the comics, they sidestep the uncanny valley. They are realistic without being eerily human, which is a tough line to walk, and one that is only really crossed by Tintin, which could be a problem since he is the main character, but its ameliorated to some extent by the fact that he’s mostly scene in action wide-shots.
And here, in these action beats, the technology becomes a perfect match for the material. Your action beats come with a level of such extremity, and exist in spaces of such intensity and audaciousness that to stage them in real life and enhance them with computer effects would result in a massive discord. This is especially true considering the means of cutting between scenes. Objects from one scene will become, seamlessly, a different object in another scene. The ocean will become a puddle. A hand will become a sand dune. A man leaping madly and swinging a sword in a hut becomes a pirate on a ship. By rending everything as a digital facsimile, the most obvious and necessary digital facsimiles are absorbed and integrated, rather than underlined. These transitions could be achieved in a standard live action film, but the effect would be jarring and draw too much attention to the form and detract from the story. (Stay, for instance, uses such transitions but uses them in a way meant to draw attention to them as a part of the story.)
Whereas animation could be used for the same effect, though, motion capture allows for greater weight, fidelity, and therefore impact. You are the kind of film that relies on real life physics and bodies responding to force for the bulk of its intensity. You feature characters who fire untold volumes of bullets and then knock one another out with a punch, who slump and collapse and fall and live in a physical realm not removed from our own. Indiana Jones had a similar tone to it, and benefited from the melding of serial-comic action beats and real life consequence and weight. The bullets are still dangerous, but they serve merely as an existential threat on the way to a matching of brawn. No one ever gets shot, but a single punch can take down the biggest bruiser. It’s this kind of old-fashioned action that needs a real-life template to really thrive, and mo-cap allows for that.
All of this is a complex way of saying that you are the fine return to form for Spielberg, whose closest recent analogue to you, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, suffered from many of the deficiencies that you managed to avoid, as well as a few it seemed to make up just for itself. I have no doubt that you will thrill children and adults, Tintin experts and neophytes, cynics and believers alike. From your intense action to your earnest, charming characters, to your Indiana Jones-esque score, you transport viewers to a time and a place and an experience they will be intent on visiting again and again.
Bravo and see you again soon,
Brian J. Roan