Back in 1929, a Belgian cartoonist named Georges Remi (under his pen name of Herge) created a comic strip for a newspaper. This comic strip was called The Adventures of Tintin, and centered around a young intrepid reporter named Tintin. He’d go on adventures all around the world, frequently crossing paths with drug smugglers, crooked politicians, and incredible crimes that he’d try to stop. Frequently appearing in these stories are his pet dog Snowy, the bumbling police detectives Thompson and Thomson, and the sarcastic and coarse Captain Haddock. Though the first three stories were rough, the series would grow in popularity thanks to its thrilling tales and Herge’s simple but striking artwork (a style known as ligne claire). It also benefitted from Herge’s in-depth research, lending his stories an air of reality in all the details that he captured. It was no wonder, then, that someone like Steven Spielberg would want to make a movie based on this comic series. Though it had taken a while, Spielberg was able to finally bring the classic comic to the big screen in 2011 with The Adventures of Tintin, a performance capture animated film that captures the spirit and fun of its source material.
One day, as Tintin (played by Jamie Bell) is checking out a street market, he finds a model ship for sale based upon a sailing ship known as the Unicorn. Eager to purchase it from Tintin however are a large American man named Barnaby and a red-suited businessman named Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin chooses to hang onto the ship, however, only for Barnaby to wind up dead when he comes calling later and for the model to be stolen. Realizing that there is a mystery to be solved surrounding the ship, he learns of an old legend about three models of the Unicorn offering the key to a treasure that could only be reclaimed by a member of the Haddock family. From this discovery, he finds himself pulled into a race against time and forces seeking to claim the treasure for themselves. He also gains himself an ally in the form of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), an alcoholic sea captain who may serve as not only the key to this mystery, but also the answer as to why these criminals are so driven for this particular treasure.
This film is a real delight. The story captures the quick pace and thrills of Herge’s original stories well. Spielberg’s direction of the film is top-notch. In fact, it felt a lot like he had recaptured the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark, showcasing old-fashioned action and excitement. However, he swaps the pure pulp serial action of that film for a mood more fitting for the mystery and noir style of Herge’s stories while still maintaining their fun and adventure. Going along with that tone is John Williams’ superb score, which opts for a light and bouncy jazz feel. It can become low and menacing to fit with the shadows, shift to light and fun during the clownish antics of Thompson and Thomson, or go grand during a particularly stunning piece of action. The performances in the movie are also good, especially Andy Serkis’ turn as Captain Haddock. What struck me most, however, was the animation for the film.
Now, this was not the first movie to be animated with performance capture. For those unfamiliar with the process, performance capture is a method of animation where the movements and performances of real actors in motion-capture suits are captured on video. These recordings are then taken by animators, who create the full character around those movements and performance along with animating the world around them. There had been a few attempts at full animated movies with this technique, but they generally went for a realistic look to their characters and the result was an uphill battle with the uncanny valley (an effect where something that looks almost human but not quite is perceived as creepy). Technology improved and the effect was lessened, but this realistic approach still couldn’t totally get that past issue. The Adventures of Tintin, however, finds a neat approach to sidestep the issue. While the textures of things like clothing or hair were realistic, the characters themselves still happened an element of their caricatured design from Herge’s artwork. For example, the fabric of Captain haddock’s sweater or the texture of his hair were realistic, but he himself still had the same sort of bulbous nose that Herge originally drew him with. To me, it’s an inspired idea that not only allows the film to have a bit more of a visual rooting in the orginal comic’s designs, but also gets around the issue of the uncanny valley by using a slightly less realistic appearance.
In short, The Adventures of Tintin is a burst of playful fun that realizes the potential of performance capture animation along with giving a fun thrill ride that maintains the spirit of its source comic series. The film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. If you ever want to give the original comic book a try, I suggest starting off with a story line known as The Crab with the Golden Claws. Along with being a source of inspiration for this film (along with The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure), it’s a solid stand-alone tale that first introduced Captain Haddock to the series.