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The Fashionably Late Review: The Adventures of Tintin

March 26, 2013

(Ed. note: The Fashionably Late Review is a critique of a film released in the last two years — with spoilers, so it can be appropriately reviewed in its entirety. So be warned. If you really wanted to see the following film, you’d have seen it by now.)

the-adventures-of-tintin-post1It’s a slippery slope reviewing a movie like The Adventures of Tintin. On one hand, the film itself is a rollicking good time, full of creative set pieces and physics-defying action sequences. On the other, and I think it’s only fair that we point this out, it’s also a collaboration between the great Steven Spielberg and the great Peter Jackson. The latter point is an important one to note, because with a teaming-up of this magnitude there’s a certain bar the film needs to meet. In many ways, it meets that bar. In probably more ways, it comes up dishearteningly short.

For those of you who were young people growing up in Europe in the mid-to-late twentieth century, the nailbiting tales of intrepid, cowlicked reporter Tintin need no introduction — the series of comics, colorfully written and illustrated by Belgian artist Georges Remi under the pen name Hergé, was massively popular on the continent for an entire generation. These stories, by cultural standards, never made quite the splash here in the United States (outside of a shortlived, animated HBO program in the early nineties). Each episode consisted of a dogged young reporter uncovering a new mystery full of action and intrigue. From Tintin in the Congo to Destination Moon, the title character’s adventures read like a youthful precursor to the serial white-knucklers of Indiana Jones or the cleverness of James Bond. His supporting characters were equally memorable, from the salty sea-dog Captain Haddock to the villainous Professor Calculus to the bumbling, bowler-clad detective duo Thompson and Thompson (from where the 80’s new wave duo the Thompson Twins lifted their name).

The canon of Tintin is wide and deep, and by all accounts the film did great business in European countries — but it was a bit of a flop here in the States. Spielberg and Jackson probably should have seen this coming, to be honest, and perhaps they did and chose to hedge their bets on the success they’d have internationally with the film. The franchise of Tintin was not particularly one American audiences have been clamoring for, as we much prefer our superheroes to foreign Belgian comics. But Spielberg and Jackson tackled it anyway and, to be honest, for what they did, they did it pretty well and without borders.

In some ways, it’s disappointing that The Adventures of Tintin didn’t get a better shake from U.S. audiences, because it is a lot of fun. Using a much more viewer-friendly version of motion-capture animation (think Polar Express, only less creepy and slightly more cartoonish), the world the duo of directors lay down for Tintin’s universe is bright and beautiful, and the characters are beautifully created. In fact, the least visually interesting character in the film is Tintin himself, voiced by british actor Jamie Bell. Andy Serkis’ drunken Captain Haddock and Daniel Craig’s nefarious Sakharine fare better as over-the-top players in the reporter’s latest adventure, which focuses upon a too-big-to-be-explained-here saga spanning decades of a feud between the Haddock and Sakharine clans over the fate of a mysterious pirate ship known as The Unicorn. When Tintin and his trusty white dog Snowy discover the pickled, whisky-reeking Haddock is the last remainig key to an age-old treasure hunt, a race is on to solve the wonders of the Unicorn before Sakharine — with his crushed velvet smoking jacket and cane — can get his hands on the Unicorn’s invaluable loot.

Sound good so far? Probably, and it does have its terrific moments. Watching Spielberg and Jackson, both masters of fantastical action, play in a sandbox where no real laws of physics apply is largely a hoot, with some phenomenally engaging action sequences. A swordfight between the ancestors of Haddock and Sakharine, told in flashback, is a visual wonder as the burning sails of a sinking pirate ship collapse around them. Likewise a quick-paced chase scene through the busy streets of Morocco beg comparison to any of Dr. Henry Jones’ adventures, and a third act action sequence depicting Haddock and Sakharine reliving their forefathers’ swordfight by using two cranes on a dock is clever and a lot of fun. In moments like these, Tintin really shines and Spielberg and Jackson effectively bring you into their world.

The problem is, however, that it’s just not enough. Clocking in at a measly 107 minutes (I’m not sure either director has ever brought a film in under that running time), at the end of the day it all feels like a cop-out. The mystery of the Unicorn is interesting and begs more exploration, but just as stones are really being turned over, the film effectively ends in a cheap ploy for viewers to wait for a sequel which may or may not currently be in the works. What’s there is a blast, but at some point in the last ten minutes the viewer is left feeling like Spielberg and Jackson just decided they were tired of it all. This may work in Jackson’s world, where a sequel to Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit is a sure thing, but there’s simply not enough of Tintin for us to beg for more.

Herein lies the crushing blow for the slightly endearing Adventures of Tintin; a commitment to bringing the story home just doesn’t seem to be there for the renowned directors, and it shows. What if Raiders of the Lost Ark had ended after the famous convoy sequence and the Ark never opened? It’s this feeling of incompleteness that leaves us frustrated and disappointed. The true mysteries of the Unicorn are never fully solved (apparently, we learn at the end that there’s even more to uncover and that the surface has only been scratched), but the bigger unsolved mystery is how Jackson and Spielberg failed to deliver a film that should have been well within both of their wheelhouses. As Captain Haddock himself might quip: “blistering barnacles,” indeed.

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