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February 2, 2012

I’m of the opinion that a film adaptation, no matter how famous or beloved the source material, should make some effort to bring a viewer unfamiliar with said source material into the fold. Spielberg’s TINTIN makes no such effort.

The extent of my Tintin knowledge comes from a “how to draw” book I had growing up, which used him as an example of a character built from simple shapes (circle, square, and triangle).* As a character,I can’t say the movie told me anything else about him. I guess he’s some kind of intrepid young reporter archetype — for all I know, he originated said archetype — and that information came to me courtesy of a Zemeckis-esque pan over various pictures and news clippings on his wall.** Which was kind of necessary, since he never takes any pictures or notes, and the film stops well before he writes any articles. Without that expository pan-over he would’ve just seemed like some too-clever-for-his-own-good kid who can’t mind his own business.

As a character, I don’t like Tintin, and I don’t know why I should like Tintin or want him to succeed in his goal, nor even what his goal really is for the first hour or so of the movie. When I finally find out, I still don’t care. There’s some lost treasure and a rich guy wants it but Tintin wants it first. If Tintin loses, the world won’t end, an orphanage won’t close, and no one is especially affected because no one even knows it’s there. I found it hard to care that Tintin kept getting into mortal danger because he kept putting himself there deliberately. It might have been one thing if they kept chasing him for reasons he didn’t understand, and he had to solve the mystery before they killed him and they dogged his heels at every turn, a la Bourne. But every time he fails to achieve his current goal, the bad guys are content to just forget he even exists; he continues chasing after them.

If anything, the outcome of the plot matters to Haddock, who will get to reclaim his family’s honor and get sober or something. But I don’t care about him, either. He’s obnoxious, speaks only in catchphrases, and the getting sober thing is an extremely mixed message because his alcoholism saves the day on at least two separate occasions. The characters are devoid of personality, other than superficial affectations — surprisingly, considering the screenwriting pedigree — and the movie can’t seem to decide whether it’s a cartoon (Haddock not only refuels but turbocharges a plane engine by breathing into it, in one of the aforementioned “his addiction saves the day” moments) or weirdly realistic (Haddock at one point expresses concern he can’t afford the property taxes on his ancestral family home).

Spielberg behaves like a kid with a new toy, going completely drunk with power on the virtual nature of the film. The camera flies through every available teacup handle, just because it can, and the villain’s cane can’t seem to keep itself out of my face, lest I forget I’m watching in THREEEEE DEEEEEEEE. Being Spielberg, there are of course still some great shots, and even some tasteful uses of 3D, but mostly it’s over the top and distracting. And yet, at the same time, there’s no real sense of tension or suspense in the film.

At one point, Tintin is unconscious following a plane crash***, and slowly sliding down the fuselage head first toward the still-spinning propeller. Slam dunk of a scene for Spielberg, right? Guy’s a master at milking moments like that (cf. the fight on the rock crusher in TEMPLE OF DOOM.) But between the shot choices, the music, the pacing of the edit, the movie almost doesn’t even seem to notice it’s happening, much less emphasize it, much LESS milk it for all it’s worth. I almost wasn’t even sure that’s what was happening except there is one, unemphatic shot of the propellor starting to flick at the tips of Tintin’s hair. It’s like Spielberg got so distracted by the catharsis of being able to do anything he wanted, he forgot to do the things that actually mattered.

The camera madness culminates in a full-on Star Tours sequence in a climactic motorcycle chase through the streets of Morocco, which even throws in a Zack Snyder speed ramp at the end just to leave no egregious stone unturned.

I don’t hate the ridefilm sequence. It’s one of the few scenes in the film where the goal of the characters and the stakes of the scene are actually clear, the other being a flashback sword fight (which is probably the high point of the film and one of the better recent movie fight scenes too, for clarity of purpose if not necessarily choreography). But it wasn’t long before the spectacle wore off, in what I’m estimating is at least five minutes of an “unbroken” shot, and I disengaged from the film to marvel at how much work it was and ponder how the effects team might have divided it up in order to process it all.

When a putative adventure movie has me humming the render management of the big set-piece, there’s a serious problem.

At this point, my interest in a sequel is purely academic — I do kind of want to contrast what Spielberg did with the characters and technology against what Jackson may do. But if it never happens, I can’t say I’ll be heartbroken, or even likely to notice.

* His signature upturned bangs hairstyle has become perplexingly popular in recent years, but I’m not sure it’s actually got anything to do with Tintin.

** Speaking of Zemeckis, I have to give this film credit for not suffering from the dead eyed uncanny valley that’s plagued his own performance capture oeuvre. The characters still look a bit odd, but not kill-it-with-fire odd.

*** By the way, Tintin gets knocked out by blows to the head a LOT in this movie. Maybe that’s a recurring gag in the comics, but now he looks all realistic and I couldn’t help but think he’d have to be sustaining some serious brain damage.

One Comment
  1. sorry to hear this about it. I enjoyed the cartoon as a kid.

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