Despite boasting internationally lauded source material, the most famous populist auteur in film history, and lavish special effects, The Adventure of Tintin is a tough sell stateside. The film's androgyne hero remains an unknown quantity over here, and the previews' hyper-caricatured CGI may scare away those expecting a 107-minute safari through the uncanny valley.
Fortunately for Tintinophiles (and fans of sleeping soundly at night), Tintin evades the dead-eyed gooniness of The Polar Express. And for the uninitiated who wouldn't know the plot of The Blue Lotus from The Red Sea Sharks, know that the absolutely rollicking Adventures of Tintin is the Indiana Jones movie The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been.
Minor spoilers ahead.
A few weeks back, I found myself rewatching Crystal Skull on one of those many basic cable channels that plays Indiana Jones movies on interminable loop. I hadn't seen the film since its 2008 debut, so I was curious to see if the "nuke the fridge" scene was as egregious everyone seems to remember it.
And yes, Harrison Ford's refrigerator ride was still silly (although using a life raft as a parachute in Temple of Doom was outlandish too), but that's not what struck me about the scene. After Indy emerges from the fridge — not looking like fedora-wearing pâté — he pauses to observe the mushroom cloud rising behind him. This scene distills the problems I had with Crystal Skull. Indiana Jones, nemesis of melting-wax Nazis and turbo-aging mannequins, had become dwarfed by his own special effects.
With The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg has doubled down on this fridge-nuking sequence, and crazily enough, it works. Freed from flesh-and-blood actors, the director and the animators at Weta Digital have license to toss Belgian cartoonist Hergé's boy reporter (voiced and motion-captured by Jamie Bell) and his dipsomaniac friend Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) into chase sequences that would give Rube Goldberg the vapors.
The film carries a pedigree that goes beyond Spielberg's involvement. Peter Jackson produces here (and is directing the sequel), and the frequently funny screenplay was penned by the geek trifecta of Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, three names that should familiar to anybody who spends some time on this very site.
The story is the amalgamation of three of Hergé's 1940s comics: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure. Basically, these are the comics that focus on the weird-insult-spewing, flawed hero Captain Haddock. This is a smart maneuver, given that Tintin's character is intentionally sparse (more on that in a moment).
Here's a brisk description of this equally brisk film: during an unspecified time between 1930-1950 in an unmentioned European city, Tintin and his loyal, semi-sentient dog Snowy buy a model sailing ship at a flea market. After buying the ship, the angular Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) suddenly appears to purchase the model from our hero (to no avail). Several burglaries and one attempted murder later, Tintin is on the case with the comically useless inspectors Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost).
The mystery of the model ship leads Tintin to the cargo vessel Karaboudjan, where he befriends the besotted Haddock. After that, the inseparable Haddock and Tintin carom from one death-defying situation to the next. Their quest is fraught with whizzing bullets and empty whiskey bottles (but no surreal hallucinations). This may be a family film, but Spielberg doesn't stray from Hergé's recipe of slapstick moral peril.
Similarly, the screenplay maintains Hergé's refusal to flesh out Tintin's character. Most comic-to-film adaptations are forced to pare down their source material for the multiplex, but for The Adventures of Tintin, the opposite impulse is the temptation. A lesser creative team would've given Tintin a last name, parents, a girlfriend, and a Smash Mouth-scored training montage.
Under the aegis of Spielberg and company, the hero remains an ageless, asexual, ambiguously employed human with a cowlick who talks to his dog a lot. (Just the way Tintin loyalists like their hero.) Tintin is merely the catalyst, the faceless vessel, who gets the adventure started. All you need to know about him is that he's insanely brave and resourceful, ridiculously skilled with firearms, and — to paraphrase a character's biography of him at the film's beginning — "everybody knows who he is." As the man-child who can hold his own among the adults, Tintin is the younger viewer's proxy.
The comic's oddball idiosyncrasies may be a sticking point for some viewers, namely that Tintin lives in a world seemingly devoid of women. As for the stylized photorealistic CG, I went in expecting the worst and didn't have any problems with it. Overall, it's cartoonish enough to not look soulless, the 3D works well, and the dizzying set pieces are worth the price of admission.
Near the end of the film, there's a single-camera motorcycle chase — involving bazookas, tanks, falcons, exploding dams, and runaway buildings — that is hands-down one of the most gloriously insane scenes I've ever seen committed to film. As a longtime Tintin fan*, I loved seeing Spielberg do his due diligence. As a Spielberg fan, I loved how much it reminded me of the out-of-control tank from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
*I grew up with the books for as early as I can remember, which lead to some weird moments in my childhood, primarily that preschool-era yours truly tacitly assumed that cobras, fakirs, and the global opium trade were real problems adults confronted with regularity.