Friday, January 13, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

Alternate Title:  What do you do with a Drunken Sailor...

One sentence synopsis:  A boy reporter and a drunken sea captain race an evil criminal mastermind to uncover a secret treasure.

Things Havoc liked:  3D animation has come a long way since Final Fantasy, and for the last ten years, people have been trying, off and on, to make fully animated 3D movies. By and large, these have all sucked. Why they have sucked has varied from the normal problems that plague typically bad movies (incoherent plots, bad writing, lackluster voice/character acting, etc...) to reasons tied to the animation in general, particularly the famous uncanny valley effect.

And so we come to Tintin, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Peter Jackson, scored by John Williams, and written by Stephen Moffat. With a lineup like that, one expects excellence, and, frankly, one by and large receives it. To conclude the point from above though, while I wouldn't call the animation here perfect, it is very very good animation. Faces are expressive, characters detailed, the visual style is rich and bright and colorful, and while there's still the occasional twinge of the old uncanny valley (mostly from Tintin's face, in specific shots), the characters in general are wisely caricatured enough to avoid it overall. The motion animation is stunningly real in movement and flow, enabling everything from acrobatics to swordfights to subtle character motions during dialogue to be portrayed perfectly. The Polar Express this ain't.

Based on the comics by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (known popularly as Hergé), Tintin's story and feel is essentially a version of Young Indiana Jones, which makes sense given who directed, scored, and wrote this film. The production, directorial, and writing teams associated with this movie have a long, rich history of adventure flicks to their credit, and Tintin fits seamlessly into that stable. The movie wisely eschews telling an origin story for Tintin himself, establishing him at the beginning as a boy reporter who goes on crazy adventures semi-constantly. Think Jimmy Olson crossed with Indiana Jones, and you'll get the proper idea. Though Tintin has been accused of being bland in the past, this movie moves so fast from set-piece to gorgeous set-piece that we never get the chance to notice if he is or not, and Jamie Bell (last seen as a slave in the terrible "The Eagle) voices him well, if not memorably. His signature look from the comics is replicated faithfully, as is his character as a boy scout who is perfectly willing to engage in complete insanity in order to solve this particular crime, mystery, or dastardly plot.

More impressive though, is Andy Serkis' take on Captain Haddock. Since the Lord of the Rings, Serkis has become the reigning prince of motion capture animation, playing everything from King Kong to the lead in the Planet of the Apes. Here he both voices and provides the motion capture for Captain Haddock, a drunken buffoon who is easily the best thing in the movie. Not only is his art design perfect, but he gets some of the funniest slapstick moments in entire film. His characterization is nothing to write home about, a gregarious, drunken Scott who feels like he isn't living up to his family's legacy, but he nonetheless provides great fun whenever he's on the screen.

The rest of the cast varies from decent to good, particularly Daniel Craig as the villain Sakharine (doing what sounds like a sendup to David Warner), and the Shaun of the Dead pairing of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the bumbling interpol agents Thomson and Thompson. But the characters in general are meant to take second place to the relentless, frenetic action and adventure going on on-screen. Spielberg is said to have remarked that animation freed him to direct action sequences the way he always wanted to, unlimited by such crass concerns as safety, budget, and the laws of physics. He certainly tries to make the most of it here. Sequences of almost frantic action hit you one after the next, including intricate, complex long-shots of swooping action that leave one dizzy. Many of the set-pieces are very inventive (particularly the dueling shipping cranes), and thanks to the superb motion capture, all of them feel like they have real weight and heft to them, elevating them above what could easily become a particularly well-animated Tom & Jerry cartoon.

Things Havoc disliked:  Except, that is, when they don't.

The temptation with animation, as with any technology that allows more freedom to the filmmaker, is to go completely over the top, saturating the screen with imagery and density of element until the audience is simply buried in effects. This mentality is one of the major things that doomed the Star Wars prequels (one of many, I grant), and Spielberg, no stranger to film-making, wisely does his best to avoid it whenever possible. Action in central and in the foreground, and is not compromised by anything else happening on the periphery of the screen, and several of the sequences are actually very technically impressive, animated film or no animated film. Yet despite the skill on display here, the incredible action and adventure scenes left me... astonishingly underwhelmed. Rather than getting caught up in the awesomeness, I really felt like I was watching a cartoon, wherein the occurrence of strange and fantastic events is not necessarily impressive. Not to say that one can't have amazing experiences in a cartoon, but a cartoon has to craft them more carefully, as the simple sight of amazing action is not going to wow the audience without something else to elevate it. We are all conditioned to expect the impossible in a cartoon, making it that much harder to generate interest when the impossible happens.

And that's really the problem here. The movie, while competent in every level, a piece of flawless execution of filmmaker's art, never really connected with me in any way. None of the adventure, none of the action filled me with the wonder that similar sequences in many live action films I've seen have. As nothing was done particularly wrong in this film, I have to conclude that there's an element to animated films, no matter how close to a live action film they are, are simply not able to work on the same levels as live action ones. Again, I'm not trying to say either that I dislike this movie or animated movies in general, but a sight that would floor me in live action did not do so here.

Final thoughts:  There is nothing particularly wrong with this movie. It is eye-catching, interesting, well-acted, superbly-well animated, shot with care and love, and yet it left me strangely unsatisfied, for reasons I have chosen to attribute to the experiment being performed here. Ultimately, no matter how good the technology, you simply cannot create an animated film in the same manner as a live action one and expect it to work on the same level. That said, the movie does work, firing on most if not all pistons for the vast majority of the time. There are inspired moments ("Hands up!") and even entire sequences ("Crane fight!") that I thought were awesome. But overall, the movie simply failed to connect with me in a way that makes me wonder about the limits of animation. One simply cannot make an animated movie in the same way one makes a live action film, not with all the talent and skill in the world. Such is the nature of film.

Final Score:  7/10

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