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The Adventures of Tintin: Belgian Export Expertly Handled

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Cinema Siren knows Tintin. Like millions of other kids all over the world, I grew up reading Herge’s thrilling, adventurous, comic book series over and over until I knew every illustration and storyline like the back of my hand.

Tintin is what made me love illustration and see comic and cartoon images as real art. Tintin is indirectly responsible for my animation and film gallery, ArtInsights in Reston, existing. Needless to say, I approached The Adventures of Tintin with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Could they make a movie of the beloved artist’s characters without screwing it up?

Steven Spielberg has been asking himself that since 1982, when he first discovered, embraced and started working on a film adaptation of Herge’s Belgian comic classic. He shelved it for a time then got back to it recently when he finally figured out how to make it work. He brought Peter Jackson and his award-winning visual effects studio, Weta Digital, onboard and began building the movie with cutting edge computer technology. Spielberg said it was the first time he’d worked so closely with someone on a film. Jackson was present through video communication for all 32 days of the motion capture shooting, about which Spielberg said, “It was a true partnership. It must be how the Coen brothers work.”

The technology involves actors dressing in special suits with sensors on their faces who interact without physical scenery while the director shoots from a special camera, in which the visual scaffolding of the world used in each scene is already placed. The director is also seeing the actors’ avatars on camera. So Speilberg can see the actors within a simplified version of the scenery, and knows the basic look of how it will be seen once the computer artists meticulously add all the nuances of each street, character and atmospheric detail. Speilberg said holding the camera was the closest in his career he’s ever been to the action, which created in him even more enthusiasm to his time onset.

But what of the movie itself?

The story is based on an amalgam of three classic Tintin adventures, The Secret of the Unicorn (first published in 1943), its sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure (published 1945), which are obviously about a treasure hunt, and The Crab With The Golden Claws (1941), in which Tintin and his friend Captain Haddock meet.

Tintin (Jamie Bell), a reporter who is perpetually embroiled in some international intrigue, and his brilliant and resourceful dog Snowy are on the trail of clues to a long lost fortune he discovers exists through buying a model ship carrying something unexpected inside it. Globetrotting, danger, and excitement ensue.

He’s a bit like Indiana Jones, only with his youthful enthusiasm and wide eyed wonder still intact. His friend, the “seen it all before” Haddock (the wonderful Andy Serkis using an impressive Scottish brogue), is his perfect foil, but still proves to be a trustworthy and steadfast partner in his adventures. The bumbling policemen Thompson and Thompson (played by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg and modeled after Herge’s father and his father’s twin brother) and the villainous Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) round out the main characters.

Real acting was required. Those of you who saw the latest Planet of the Apes movie, for which Andy Serkis who played an ape through motion capture is being considered for Oscar nomination, can attest to the unique talents required to put across characters using this technology.

It is interesting to note that Herge began sending Tintin to exotic locales when in 1941 he discovered in his Nazi occupied native Brussels, he had to place his characters far away from the war zones, where he’d have no fear of being seen as subversive or politically motivated. Adventures that took kids all over the most exotic parts of the world were born out of necessity.

An animator friend says she prefers her cartoons to carry the exaggeration squash and stretch that is the legacy of decades of experimentation at Disney and Warner Brothers has borne. She isn’t interested what she sees as the stilted quality of motion capture.

What if, though, these adventures are particularly exciting and imaginative—sometimes literal flights of fancy even the most sophisticated CGI can’t achieve? Tintin is an impressive and historic marriage of motion capture and computer animation that allows the film makers a new kind of freedom neither animation nor live action has allowed to date.

Yes, the lead character’s rubbery botox-y forehead takes some getting used to. It is also still an insurmountable challenge to create any deep empathy or connection to these characters, which take us on a rousing great time through desert sands and high seas. It is true their eyes are a bit dead. That is where our connection is lost, and where we have reached the limitations of this albeit impressive new hybrid. No matter.

We have a wonderful time with them anyway. There is such detail in the backgrounds, and so much is based on images from Herge’s work, newcomers and old fans of the Tintin series will find much to enjoy over the 107-minute running time. The 3D adds to the feeling we might be in that cartoon world ourselves. True longterm fans will appreciate the bit at the beginning where some of Herge’s art is incorporated. Since his estate had to clear every character and scene repeatedly through the development of the film, it is safe to assume that particular ode to the artist was received with a great thumbs up.

Though we are just getting Tintin in theaters, the original release date was October 22nd in Brussels, Belgium, the birthplace of the character. It has broken box office records in several European countries and is at $250 million worldwide already after a few days here in the states.

All in all, after a few dodgy minutes at the beginning, Cinema Siren, a true fan of the world of Tintin (the “I” is pronounced like ham not pin, second N is silent) settled in to find it a very exciting and fun ride. It is highly recommended and absolutely great for kids, since the character is so engaged with life and has such a strong moral compass. Tintin’s mother would have to be a very proud nervous wreck.

While it doesn’t leave a lasting emotional impression like, say, Arthur Christmas, it does leave viewers connected enough to story, and of course to his intrepid pup Snowy. It also leave us excited at the prospect of seeing him forge ahead to new adventures. Peter Jackson is set to direct the next one. I’m definitely onboard.

Author’s note: If you want to investigate the world of Herge and Tintin, check out http://us.tintin.com. There’s also a great interactive app available called The Art of The Adventures of Tintin that shows some wonderful aspects of how this movie came to life.