Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Daniel Mays, Gad Elmaleh, Toby Jones, Joe Starr, Enn Reitel, Mackenzie Crook, Tony Curran, Sonje Fortag, Cary Elwes, Phillip Rhys
Written by: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, based on stories by Hergé
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking
Running Time: 107
Date: 10/22/2011

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Going Places

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Steven Spielberg has dabbled in animation for years, producing movies like An American Tail and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and TV shows like "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs." In 1983, he directed a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie; in another segment of that movie, a character says, "I like cartoons because anything can happen in them." Spielberg seems to have taken all this to heart while directing his first feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Tintin. He has used the form itself like a brand-new tool in his filmmaking kit, and the effect is exhilarating.

This is the kind of film Spielberg may have wanted to make with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), where the impossible actually occurs onscreen. The transitions between scenes and flashbacks are most amazing and imaginative; scale, size, shape, and speed are no object. Anything is possible.

Thankfully, the rest of the film lives up to this kind of energy and enthusiasm. It's a pure boy's adventure film, plain and simple, about traveling the world (by boat, plane, and everything else) to find lost treasure. It's Indiana Jones re-imagined for the 21st century, without the bother of real life and aging actors. (In fact, my guess is that, if Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had been made, exactly as is, but as an animated feature, it would be far more loved and accepted than it is now.)

Created by Hergé, Tintin is the star of a series of Belgian comic books. He first appeared in 1929 and continued to be published up until 1976. He's arguably more popular in Europe than in the U.S., though the books have apparently been translated in 50 languages. Spielberg's movie is in English, of course, but set all over the world (and not, seemingly, in the United States). Additionally, Spielberg was wise enough to hire three international writers to adapt the screenplay. Steven Moffat is Scottish, and worked on the English TV shows "Coupling" and "Doctor Who." Edgar Wright is the English director and co-writer of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) as well as other notable titles. And Joe Cornish is the English writer/director of Attack the Block, from earlier this year (and which Wright also co-produced).

Additionally, Wright's frequent lead actors Simon Pegg (also a co-writer) and Nick Frost, provide voices for the film. This mishmash of talents works exactly the right way, and they bring out the best in one another; the movie is a bundle of giddy energy. Some will argue that the movie should have been made in its original French, but it's such an international, universal enterprise that Spielberg's movie is perfectly acceptable; and the dedication to its essence is certainly there.

The movie's main problem is the decision to use "mo-cap" (motion capture) animation. The usual effect of this -- as seen in Robert Zemeckis' last three films The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and A Christmas Carol (2009) -- is realistically creepy characters with soulless, dead eyes. With digitally animated human characters, the rule is: the less realistic they are, the less creepy they are (as witness Pixar's The Incredibles and Up). Spielberg has compromised and given all his characters funny noses, making them look just weird enough to distract us from the creepy factor. Not to mention that the mo-cap king, Andy Serkis, is here playing Captain Haddock. (He provides extra humanity.)

Jamie Bell is the star, playing the young journalist Tintin. The story begins as he buys a model ship at an outdoor market. It turns out that several people are looking for the ship; it contains a clue as to the location of a lost treasure. Tintin is eventually kidnapped -- his heroic dog Snowy chases after him -- and escapes, meeting the good, drunken Captain. Together they brave deserts, palaces, and harrowing chase scenes to solve the puzzle.

I can't over-emphasize how intoxicatingly speedy this movie is, but it's not exhausting (though I heard some critics claim otherwise). Spielberg is a master of rhythm and feeling, and he knows exactly when to pause for an update on the puzzle, or just a plain old rest. Best of all, though the director very often doesn't know when to stop his movies, he ends this one on a triumphant upbeat. He leaves us wanting more for the first time since perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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