Friday, November 11, 2011

A thirst for adventure -- 'Adventures of Tintin' review


When last we left Steven Spielberg, he had just finished what (for me, at least) was one of the most insipid, uninspired action films imaginable: An "Indiana Jones" follow-up with little in the way of spark and sheer love for adventure, and lots in the way of cheesy set pieces, horrible CGI, and ridiculously inert narrative. Maybe it was enough for Spielberg to realize that he was simply burned out on his own filmmaking. "Indy IV" was bloated enough to make even the most ardent follower of the director balk.

With "The Adventures of Tintin," Spielberg works in a medium he never has before -- animation -- using technologies he never has -- motion capture -- and distributed in a format he's never applied before -- 3D. Love it or hate it (and I suspect there will be many in both camps), "Tintin" brings a serious sense of discovery back into Spielberg's work, a love for the possibilities of constructing space. It also, and this is the most crucial, tries to push the fun quotient as high as he can get away with.

Now, I'm not at all versed in the comic serials by Herge on which "Tintin" is based, but the screenplay by Steven Moffat ("Dr. Who"), Edgar Wright ("Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), and Joe Cornish ("Attack the Block") handles the balancing act of making a pulp adventure film *almost* work. There are a good number of silly moments in "Tintin," and most of them work surprisingly solid given their rather obvious nature, because the writing and Spielberg's direction almost make the film float on air. This keeps the film from really grounding itself and developing a sincere sense of tension, but it does keep it light and fun (which, ultimately, I think is better in this case).

And while the story is linked with the elements you'd expect from an adventure tale -- secrets, clues, missteps, evil bad guys, and legends to spare -- after a while it can't help but take on the feel of a series of admirable setpieces barely strung together. What makes "Raiders of the Lost Ark" the single best adventure film ever (my opinion, but c'mon) is that while the film *is* a series of setpieces, it never takes its eyes off the Ark and what the Ark means. That, and Dr. Jones is a broad character defined beautifully by Ford, but that's neither here nor there. The treasure in "Tintin" is more a MacGuffin -- something all the characters want, but something that takes backseat to the action for much of the film.

In "Tintin," the hunt to find a lost treasure pits the intrepid young journalist against the nefarious Sakharine, a villain who's just villainous enough to be the bad guy without presenting any really perilous threat. But after a while, the action is just much more interesting than what actually happens to the character. The animation certainly creates a level of inconsequential fakeness to the proceedings, where it seems like Tintin's sidekick Captain Haddock could survive just about anything.

But what of the animation? At first, it's somewhat jarring. Some characters look incredibly real, like Tintin and Sakharine, while others are incredibly stylized (like the bumbling detective duo Thompson and Thompson), which makes this world seem both identifiable and cartoonish. After a few minutes though, it's actually quite marvelous and makes the film more enjoyable. The "dead eye" syndrome that has haunted motion capture since its inception is certainly present on more minor characters, but the detail on Tintin is almost flawless.

As for the filming, Spielberg has used animation to completely free his camera. Shots that would otherwise be impossible are pushed to extremes: big circular motions, wild "tracking shots," and one action setpiece that's all in one shot, with the camera covering a somewhat ridiculous amount of geography. The care in designing these is incredibly impressive.  The production design, the cinematography, the editing, the sound -- these are all top-notch, very detailed, and very rewarding. Also, the score by John Williams has him reliving the kind of wild, almost chaotic and whimsical stuff that made him famous back in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" days. The music alone is enough to stir the young adventurer in you.

Okay, but then there's the 3D. I still think the film would have been just the same (maybe better) without it, BUT I was in the far left of the second row of the Chinese watching it (the screen is *enormous* and the rows are *long*). What I realized after a while is that I had to keep focusing on the center of the image to let it work, and I had to crane my neck to make the glasses work. After a while, I pushed the glasses onto my forehead and looked up to give my neck a break. So I'm not the best judge of the 3D. I will say that its unobtrusive and beautiful when it works, and I still think 3D is much more an "animator's platform" (with no disrespect to that craft, it just feels more natural than with live action). While Wim Wenders' "Pina" FLOORED me at AFI Fest with his use of 3D, I still think that's an artistic outlier when it comes to live action (I'm still waiting anxiously for Scorsese's "Hugo").

Still, the colors and the spaces really did pop in 3D, and it helps this kind of kooky stylistic project take on another dimension (no pun intended). "Tintin" is sometimes a wildly uneven film, as there are entire sequences that I think just didn't work or simply went on for too long (the film as a whole is only 107 minutes, but parts do feel a tad tiresome). Most dialogue scenes are just Tintin and Haddock recapping things I had already figured out, or saying what they were going to do next before they actually went about doing it. That may be in the spirit of the comics (I don't know), but after a while it started to feel very redundant. One thing I did notice was that 3D continues to make rapid editing or wild camera moves even more incoherent. True to Ebert's decrees, when the camera sits still for a while or the moves are smooth and patient, the eyes can process it easier. 3D is a whole different way to watch movies, and filmmakers need to adjust more and more to it.

But "Tintin" as a whole is a spectacularly silly ride of action fluff, and Spielberg embraces that. Despite its silly veneer, it manages to rouse a good deal of excitement and earns a few good laughs (especially when Tintin's dog, Snowy, is doing, well, anything). It certainly has Spielberg trying to get back to his childhood roots (without the father/son issues and sentimentality -- thankfully), and partnering with Peter Jackson as a producer certainly helps make the "bigness" of the film seem even bigger.

It's somewhat a strange film, just because of how new all the technology still is. Years from now, it will either be a curious detour in Spielberg's career, or a rather decisive moment in the motion capture/3D narrative. This makes it a love it/hate it film, even though I fall somewhere in the middle. I admire it, I even had a good amount of fun watching it (shocking for a 3D movie if you know anything about how much I hate 3D), but there's something oddly soulless about it. It's a visual tour de force, but the plot never really gets under the pulp adventure of it to care anything about Tintin as a character. Even Haddock's characterizations exist mainly to service the furthering of the adventure.

But again, this could be exactly like the "Tintin" comics, and if that's the case I imagine Wright and Co. serviced a rather wonderful homage/adaptation. If there's anything to praise about "Tintin" beyond its technological achievements and the "Spielberg/Jackson" partnership, it's that this film genuinely loves adventuring and exploring. It's a film for kids, sure, but it's also that rare film that dares you to feel like a kid for two hours without letting any of the pretensions of the adult world slide into the frame.

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