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The Adventures of Tintin movie review: faithful but strangely soulless

It’s rarely a good idea for a reviewer to read analysis of a film before formulating their own, but one criticism of Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited adaptation of Hergé’s beloved Tintin graphic novels — the first in a trilogy co-produced by Peter Jackson — bounded across the film world so loudly it could hardly be ignored. Expressed in various ways, it boils down to eyes. Cold, dead eyes.

The Adventures of Tintin was shot using state of the art performance capture technology, a process which has barely evolved since director Robert Zemeckis’s yuletide-on-tracks fable The Polar Express (2004).

Critics have grumbled about the characters’ wax-like complexions, about blanched, CGI-dipped appearances that resemble Madame Tussauds creations kept in the fridge then laid out in the sun to dry. It takes virtually no time to discover the criticism is valid.

The film “stars” real actors who were buffered with a computery glow in post production, but look into their eyes and you see something eerily un-human: small pools of dark matter, vacuous and artificial, depositing, in visual terms, the key problem with this faithful and fizzy adaption: that underneath the surface panache there is a something strangely soulless about it.

The plot is vintage Spielberg, a sharply connected cause and effect network of events of the Indiana Jones ilk: a red herring or chance encounter leads one sequence to another, beginning with Tintin’s (Jamie Bell) acquisition of an old model boat from a street market. Hidden within it is a clue to incredible riches; so begins a treasure hunt in which he and faithful pooch Snowy team up with the ever inebriated Captain “ten thousand blistering barnacles” Haddock to outsmart the maniacal Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

Most scenes are storyboarded and executed beautifully. There’s a stunning Morocco-set motorbike chase scene and a fabulous moment in which Haddock, forced into sobriety by a long walk through a desert, recalls the legacy of his ancestors. The scene is unexpectedly (and for Spielberg, uncharacteristically) hallucinogenic, swirling between time frames and settings in a rich motion of visions. And the opening credits are perfectly stylised, Saul Bass and Pink Panther-esque in their suave simplicity.

The film’s most impressive achievements, however, are muted by the waxiness of the performance capture style and the strange way it colours not just aesthetics but the film’s overall mood and impact.

Viewers will spend much of the running time coming to terms with how The Adventures of Tintin looks, grappling with a world caught between the real and unreal. Perhaps this is why Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol (2009) worked much better: internally the story broke down barriers between reality and fantasy, whizzed between time frames on spectacular magic carpet rides.

Adding 3D to an already challenging visual format in Tintin was a bridge too far. If you can watch it without donning the plastic shades, so much the better, because animation like this needs to be sharp, colourful and spritely. The 3D makes it dimmer and duller, like somebody faded the lights or shot the film in shadows.

Klutzy identical twin detectives Thompson and Thomson (the slight difference in the spelling of their names is an ongoing gag in the comic books) are, played by Shaun of the Dead laf-makers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the central source of comic relief. They should have been hilariously bumbling but instead appear stilted and slow moving, like their legs could snap off at any moment. It’s as if Spielberg and Jackson’s performance capture style is — in addition to rendering those cold, dead eyes — also incapable of handling slapstick.

The Adventures of Tintin’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2011. 

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  • 1
    Andrew McIntosh
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    The brief snippets from the trailer seem to back up your position. Nonetheless the story and visuals look exciting and I’ll be seeing this one.

  • 2
    paul of albury
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Agree on the exciting visuals – those scenes seem reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit.

  • 3
    Stephen Rowley
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Luke – interesting take. I haven’t been a fan of this technology in the past, but enjoyed this a lot.

    There’s an interesting chicken and egg question here. Do we not notice the dead eyes etc if we’re swept up in the story (as I was). Or do we notice things like that more if we’re not enjoying the movie (as it seems you weren’t, and as I didn’t for Zemeckis’ Beowulf)?

    My advice for others: go see Tintin. Perhaps the animation style will be off-putting, but it didn’t bother me (and I’ve been very bothered by this style in the past). And if you can get past it, this is a truly exciting and spectacular film.

    Also – I totally agree with Luke: see it in 2D. 3D is a poor format for any movie, as I think most people are starting to realise. It dulls the colours and blurs the image.

  • 4
    Stephen Rowley
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Argh. Mis-made my point in the second paragraph above. The second question should be: do we not enjoy the movie because the animation style and dead eyes are bothering us?

  • 5
    John Donovan
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Polar Express was a horrible film. Creepy, creepy animation meant that it freaked younger children out and did not click as an Xmas family movie. I think the 3D thing is once again on its last legs. My 2 children aged 12 and 9 refuse to see a film if it is in 3D only now. They hate the glasses, and have worked out if a movie is 3D, it means the story line must only be 1D…
    I grew up with Tintin, and have instilled a love of it in my children as well, so I am very apprehensive about this movie. Spielberg killed almost all of the goodwill of the Indiana Jones series with the Part 4 debacle. He may potentially do the same with Tintin after a single effort…

  • 6
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Is the 3D proper 3d that fake post production 3d? Given the film is computer animated I’d hope it’s proper 3d. Either way I’ll be seeing it on Boxing Day I imagine.

  • 7
    furry barry
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Well, having watched a pirated cam version, a bit (a lot) of soft focus really helped rather that hindered. It made everything seem a bit more hand drawn, like the comic itself.

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  1. ...] critics, such as myself, were distracted by the cold, dead matter in Tintin’s eyes and found the look of the film strangely soulless, a feeling that crept into [...

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