Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin (Paramount/Columbia/Amblin, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Adventures of Tintin — the name is annoyingly pronounced “Tin-Tin” throughout the movie instead of the correct “Tanh-Tanh” the character’s original creator, the French-speaking Belgian artist Hergé (true name: Georges Remy), would have intended — directed by Steven Spielberg using a blend of computer animation and so-called “motion capture” (the business of outfitting a live performer, or in this case an entire live cast, with green suits and red lights so their actions can be photographed, programmed into a computer and an entirely new body, digitally created, can be grafted onto their own). Spielberg even cast the actor who’s become the uncrowned king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, as the boy Tintin’s adult sidekick, the drunkard Captain Haddock — Serkis has previously played Gollum the renegade hobbit in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong in Peter Jackson’s recent remake, and Caesar the earth-conquering super-chimpanzee in the surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I inevitably joked that someday Andy Serkis is going to make a movie in which he’s photographed normally and looks the way he does in real life … and nobody will recognize him.

The Adventures of Tintin was based on two of the original Hergé comic series, “The Secret of the Unicorn” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (by coincidence “The Secret of the Unicorn” was my introduction to Tintin’s character in the old Children’s Digest magazine, which ran it serially, but by the time they got to the end of the story I found out it was merely a prologue to “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and got so disgusted that when my mom let my subscription to Children’s Digest expire I didn’t really mind — even back then I was disgusted with serial stories!), and though it got indifferent-to-negative reviews and didn’t do especially well in the U.S. (though it turned a good profit on foreign sales to countries in which the Tintin character has always been more popular than here), I found it a charmer start-to-finish, one of the few successful attempts at creating deliberate camp. It has its problems: the succession of improbable (to say the least!) situations and hair’s-breadth escapes for our heroes (Tintin, Haddock and Snowy, Tintin’s cute white dog) strains credibility, and as good as the CGI was there were times the obvious phoniness of things like Haddock’s beard and Snowy’s fur got to me and I wished Spielberg had shot the thing in normal live-action instead (though Charles argued that live-action would have been the wrong medium for the improbable world of the Tintin comics, whose entire appeal rests on making him a sort of super-youth whose accomplishments are far beyond the norm for his age — Hergé described him as 12, though he looks more like about 17 on screen and the actor playing him, Jamie Bell, was 25 when the film was shot — and on creating such wildly improbable plot situations that the stories eventually became parodies of themselves), and the uncertain lurching back and forth of Haddock’s character between besottedness and sobriety got wearing after a while.

The good news is that Steven Spielberg may not be the most profound or artistic director working in films today, but he’s by quite a wide margin the most assured one technically: whatever the values of the stories he films, he knows when to move the camera, when to hold it still, when to let a scene run, when to cut, when to go in for a close-up and when not to, and whatever you think of his films he always gives a sense of broad professional competence far above the aimless cuttings of too many modern directors. He’s also got the advantage of a script (by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish) that’s well constructed and manages to sustain its high spirits and energy level instead of flagging for dull, boring exposition scenes in between the action highlights like so many sorry films today do, and the dazzling series of references to other movies and other media (perhaps it’s because I love opera, but I especially liked the plot twist of having the villain engage an opera singer, Kim Stengel as “Bianca Castafiore, the Milanese Nightingale,” whose high note will shatter the glass encasing the third model of the old ship Unicorn which the villain, Daniel “James Bond” Craig as Sakharine, a.k.a. “Sugar Additive,” needs to get the third part of a coded message containing the location of a hidden treasure) adds to the appeal of the story instead of just sitting there as if the director and writer couldn’t resist the temptation to go, “Hey! Ain’t we clever?”

In 2006 Charles and I watched a documentary called Tintin et Moi [see below] at the public library, a film about Hergé and his famous character made in Europe and based on the taped interviews Hergé recorded for journalist Numa Sadoul, who was helping him with his autobiography (and the filmmakers noted that he heavily edited the resulting manuscript, with the outcome that there are parts of the autobiography that don’t even come close to matching what’s on the tapes) and one which raised the question of how Hergé’s conservative Roman Catholicism and his willingness to publish in a Nazi-owned paper, Le Soir, during the Occupation affected the Tintin stories. This show made the point that by keeping him 12 (though Hergé created Tintin stories for 40 years and updated the backgrounds, settings and accoutrements of life to keep them contemporary, he never let Tintin age) Hergé avoided having to depict him having any sort of sex life — though as depicted in this film the Tintin adventures are so relentlessly paced one can’t imagine him having time for sex! The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous movie, a piece of trivia but well-made and totally engaging trivia, and after the heavy-duty political meeting Charles and I had been to earlier that night it was a lot of fun!