Like a lot of people (including producer Peter Jackson), I enjoyed the adventures of Herge's coiffed boy reporter when I was young. Heck, my Dad enjoyed Tintin books when he was a kid; Tintin is a character who has been around world literature for some time with any number of kids growing up with him. I can still remember the first adventure I ever read - Tintin in America - and still have a firm favourite in the two-part Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (somewhat betraying my early interest in sci-fi). So the Peter Jackson produced, Steven Spielberg directed, performance-captured Adventures of Tintin had my interest piqued.
It is an interesting choice Jackson and Spielberg made, going down the route of performance capture. They wanted to capture the distinctive look of Herge's characters and world but with a more realistic look; an exaggerated realism if you will. This of course meant that they could then cast pretty much whoever they wanted. Nevertheless Jamie Bell as the eponymous hero and Andy Serkis as the irrepressible drunk Captain Archibald Haddock are spot-on.
Opening with a fun credit sequence filled with the sorts of adventures typical of Tintin and reminiscent of his Saul Bass inspired Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg then takes us into the world of the film via a rather neat cameo. It's not long at all before the boy reporter finds himself in a whole mess of trouble - at the market he finds a rather stunning model ship which he purchases just before two other gentlemen show an interest. One is a little more forceful - the devious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). This model ship leads Tintin and his faithful terrier Snowy on a globe-trotting adventure with mutineers, a water-plane, kidnappers, a desert, pirates, the bumbling detectives Thomson & Thompson (Simon Pegg & Nick Frost) and a drunken no-hoper ship's Captain by the name of Haddock.
The script by Brit geek-geniuses Stephen Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish is a propulsive ride, taking Tintin & Snowy (and, later, Haddock) from encounter to encounter with barely a moment to catch your breath. Those three writers are a trifecta of perfection, in terms of genre filmmaking and writing; Moffat's run on Dr. Who has been universally acclaimed as he balances single episodes with a larger mythology and Wright & Cornish have, between them, made four modern classics, each film fully aware and playing to it's genre. Spielberg makes the script dance and Tintin, Snowy and the audience are all quickly caught up in this adventure; this quest for the secret of the unicorn.
And I think there's a distinction that has to be made here - between action and adventure. The Adventures of Tintin is sure filled with its fair share of action but it is primarily an adventure film. A film about adventure, directed and produced by two of the greatest purveyors of modern-day adventure cinema. Spielberg, when firing on all cylinders as he is here, can craft an action sequence like few others, knowing exactly when to bring them in and how to play the audience through them. He melds that with Herge's world and sense of humour, as filtered through Moffat, Wright & Cornish, to create a number of stand-out gags throughout. There's Tintin attempting to grab a set of keys from a room full of sleeping thugs - one who is notably missing his eyelids altogether; there's Snowy leaping in and out of the background and foreground, going after sandwiches and seeing off big dogs; there's Captain Haddock misfiring a bazooka, shouting in splenetic fury and drinking every drop of alcohol he can get his hands on.
Andy Serkis once again proves himself to be the pre-eminent performance capture artist working today; his Haddock is the life and soul of the film. Where Bell's Tintin is intentionally left as something of a blank, Serkis' Haddock is a rough, world-worn and soulful character. And a lot of that is thanks simply to the performance of Serkis. You can add Haddock to the growing list of timeless characters Serkis has brought to life. The criticism I have with regards to the performance capture animation may just be me but I occasionally felt like the characters were lacking in weight. Some of their movements struck me as 'off' and unnatural; understand that none of this is poor work or a large distraction. Indeed, I have some trouble really putting my finger on what I felt to be 'wrong' here - is it just because I knew it was performance capture? Or were there really some moments that were not quite right? However, the entirely digital creation of Snowy is a wonder, helping to bring mischief and care to the adventure and he always feels entirely real.
Spielberg (with the more than capable assistance of the lads and lasses out at WETA) swings his camera wherever he damn well pleases. While this is another aspect of performance capture filmmaking I am on the fence about; where a swooping camera is allowed to go anywhere within a scene that can do anything with characters able to achieve impossible physicality, this is Spielberg and he is working with one of the most adventurous characters in literature. The Beard is a director who knows precisely where the camera needs to go and how to use the effect of 3D. I'm not the biggest supporter of 3D but neither am I the biggest detractor. When used correctly it can achieve effects like opening up huge vistas. When used incorrectly it can make the film look like a cheap diorama. While The Adventures of Tintin is a film I would happily watch in 2D and feel like I wasn't missing anything. In fact, it might even closer approximate the world of the original comics. It helps that Spielberg is one of the master directors of the modern age and thus understands how to utilise every tool at his disposal, 3D included.
Working from timeless and much loved source material (and culling from a number of Tintin adventures), Moffat and Wright & Cornish have worked up a fun, propulsive and intelligent script. Spielberg and Jackson have then gathered a note-perfect cast to help bring the characters to life. Spielberg, with WETA, has then taken all of these elements and filtered them through his own brand of cinematic alchemy to give Herge's intrepid reporter big-screen life. The Adventures of Tintin is Spielberg at his "fun, globe-trotting adventure time Spielberg" best. I look forward to seeing what Peter Jackson does with his follow-up adventure.