Old school v new school: would Spielberg’s Tintin have worked in live action?
The primary criticism levelled at Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited adaptation of Hergé’s beloved Tintin graphic novels, The Adventures of Tintin, isn’t a lack of faithfulness but the motion capture technology used to bring the Beglian artist’s stories and characters to life.
Motion capture has evolved little since it was employed to great fanfare in director Robert Zemeckis’s yuletide fable The Polar Express (2004) and three years later in Beowulf (2007). The technology in its current form works best when combined with live action footage to render characters unable to be convincingly played by humans: Gollum from Lord of the Rings, Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, King Kong from King Kong, etcetera.
Employed alone, as Spielberg’s glossy globetrotting spectacle demonstrates, motion capture tends to look stiff and waxy, linked to a dilemma known as ‘uncanny valley’ — an idea that the closer animation gets to realistic renderings of human beings the more audiences become consciously or subconsciously disturbed and/or perplexed by them.
Some 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 its non-aesthetic properties and tinted the whole production. Others didn’t seem to mind but the technology remains at least a point of contention, and something still very much in its primitive stages.
Could the Tintin movies (Spielberg’s is the first of three) have worked if they were filmed in live action? Unless Spielberg and co-producer Peter Jackson chose a radical departure back to the land of two-dimensional animation (and for this pair that option was about as likely as Michael Bay spearheading a remake of The Bicycle Thief ) CGI, motion capture or live action were the only three realistic options. Unbeknownst to many Tintin fans there are historical points of reference we can look at to gauge in broad terms how they may have fared as live action films, using some imagination to envision what would have been improved: two French features made in the 1960s.
The first and perhaps only startling thing about director Jean-Jacques Vierne’s schlocky but under-appreciated Tintin et le mystère de la Toison d’Or (Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece), released in 1961, is the cast’s remarkable resemblance to Hergé’s illustrations. The casting and costumes department nailed the look, big time. Perhaps a little too much so, given the staunchly faithful costumes provide the characters a slightly cartoony visage.
Clean-cut star Jean-Pierre Talbot could barely look anymore like Tintin, and, with the exception of some (guiltily enjoyable) semi-acrobat fight scenes in which he busts out unexpected moves, his sage mild-mannered behavior and knowing looks are bang-on. Georges Wilson also couldn’t have come closer to resembling Haddock or doing a better job with his material. Wilson’s slippery comic performance captures every booze-addled ounce of the character: red-faced, vitriolic, accident prone, convincingly drunk, and his bumbles seemingly effortless. Professor Calculus, detectives Thomson and Thompson, even Snowy the dog provide lovely supporting characterizations.
Based on an original screenplay, Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece was later turned into a book using stills from the film and accompanying text, said to be a sought after item for collectors.
The plot kicks off in Captain Haddock’s mansion, where he receives a letter informing him that an old seafaring mate has died and left him his only possession: a ship called the Golden Fleece. Tintin and Haddock travel to Istanbul to collect the dingy old boat, described as a “rust bucket” by Haddock and “clearly not much to look at” by Tintin. But very similar to what transpires in Spielberg’s film, when strangers offer them a huge wad off of cash to purchase it a light bulb quickly switches on that something is amiss, and the ship holds a secret that will ultimately frame the narrative (and, also like Spielberg’s, there is a motorcycle chase scene wedged into the plot later on).
There is a Get Smart feel to Vierne’s sporadic bursts of retro action, fun but a shade stodgy. It’s a bit camp, some scenes are loosely directed and the movie is let down by lazily connected plot points. But nevertheless Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece deserves to have its reputation restored, if indeed it had one to begin with. The action finale — taking place both underwater and high in the air — is delightful feel good fun beckoning to be handled with the aplomb of a superior visual craftsman. And one of Calculus’s inventions — the flying bird cage — is a splash of absurd genius, from both his character and the film’s production crew.
A sequel released three years later, Tintin et les oranges bleues (Tintin and the Blue Oranges) is a far less substantial achievement. Instead of abiding by the unwritten laws of sequel making (more action, more spectacle, more stuff) director Philippe Condroyer goes the other way.
After beginning with a classic Tintin style mysterious object Maguffin (in this instance, the delivery of a blue orange) the pace flounders like a fish in oxygen. Its hard to know who the film is pitched for: it’s too plodding and action-bereft for kids, too kiddy for adults and too slow and stilted for everybody. The words “not enough plot” should never apply to a Tintin story but they do here. Condroyer seems to think he can compensate with a smattering of ludicrous Benny Hill-esque slapstick moments.
There is one lovely touch: a scene in which detectives Thompson and Thomson are shown to separate hotel rooms, which are identical but reversed, and adjoining each other. The camera is poised between the wall, capturing them doing almost exactly the same movements at almost exactly the same time. Then what appears to be a third Thompson (a man in disguise) knocks on the door of the first, takes the real one downstairs and bounds and gags him, then another costumed kidnapper does the same to the other detective.
But that’s about it. The Benny Hill headless chicken chase scenes get out of control and the screenplay is abysmal, as if the writers were constantly stalling for time before ending up precisely nowhere. Perhaps Georges Wilson realised this and jumped ship; Haddock in Blue Oranges is played by a different actor, Jean Bouise.
Pushing the trashiness of Blue Oranges (and to a lesser extent, Golden Fleece) aside, what lessons can be gleamed from these two largely forgotten Tintin adaptations? Most importantly, a simple one: the Hergé look can be faithfully transferred to live action. That’s a notable achievement given the distinct simplicity of the artist’s illustrations, which on paper don’t bode well for real people.
Secondly, a transmogrified live action look doesn’t have to pervade the rest of the production as it did in Spielberg’s. Motion capture technology can be a difficult format to absorb; filmed human beings do not, for obvious reasons, have the same startling effect. But there’s the rub: Spielberg and Jackson tend to go gaga for spectacle, and effect was exactly what they were after. Whether they managed to create the desired one is a matter of debate.