Watching The Adventures of Tintin gives you the same thrill of discovery you felt when you saw Toy Story for the first time. Here is a next-gen animated film that builds on all that have come before to create something new: It leaves you elated, excited and only a little exhausted. Motion capture has been used in feature films often, from The Polar Express to Avatar. But in his initial foray into animation, director Steven Spielberg uses the technology to achieve cartoonish photo-realism — the images look like impossibly beautiful hand-drawn photographs — and then brings his singular skills to bear on a movie he could not have made in the material world.
Freed from all earthly constraints, Spielberg’s camera swoops through the air, dives under moving cars, flies alongside airplanes and does other impossible things. But there isn’t a moment in The Adventures of Tintin where the showmanship takes you out of the movie. This is the first in an intended series of films drawn from the books by the Belgian artist Hergé (Peter Jackson, who produced the movie, is slated to direct the next installment.) The comics are beloved around the world but not that well-known in the U.S.. Spielberg’s movie is poised to change that.
Jamie Bell plays Tintin, the intrepid reporter who looks like a boy but is actually a man (the first time he pulls out a gun to fire on bad guys is a bit startling.) Andy Serkis is Captain Haddock, a soon-to-be reformed alcoholic who helps Tintin on his adventures. The hero’s dog, Snowy, was created entirely on computers, but you wouldn’t guess that by watching the film. Hergé could not have asked for a better introduction to his work.
The Adventures of Tintin draws its plot from three separate issues of the comics, and the movie is stuffed with in-jokes and cameo appearances. But a working knowledge of the books is not required. When a vendor at an open-air market points at Tintin and shouts “Him? Everybody knows him!” the joke works in two ways. The plot isn’t all that engaging and somewhat hard to follow, which renders the movie a bit frivolous. You won’t remember what Tintin was about other than lots of crazy cliffhangers and breakneck chases.
But oh, what chases they are. The first one comes just a few minutes into the film, a brief bit of business involving Snowy and a cat. From there, the action sequences start to grow progressively longer and bigger, culminating with an extended motorcycle chase through a Moroccan city, all done in one shot with no cuts. The scene is a brilliant feat of choreography and imagination, and Spielberg is careful never to allow his visuals to overwhelm you. There are moments in The Adventures of Tintin that build such rousing momentum, they merit comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And the 3D! Spielberg is the third A-list director (after Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese) to take 3D out for a spin this year, and the results make you rethink everything bad you ever said about the gimmick (well, almost everything). The Adventures of Tintin may seem frenetic and exhausting to some viewers, and it’s less substantial than a bag of cotton candy: The thrills are all disposable. But the movie is never confusing or off-putting the way Michael Bay’s contraptions are, and the relentless pace is a big part of the fun. Who ever heard of a slow rollercoaster, anyway? You’ll have to ride this one in the theater, though. It simply won’t be the same at home. Start lining up now.
Cast: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones, Cary Elwes, Nick Frost.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenwriters: Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish. Based on the comic books by Hergé.
Producers: Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy.
A Paramount Pictures studios. Running time: 107 minutes. Mock violence. Opens Wednesday Dec. 21 at area theaters.