Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Written as one extended climax, The Adventures of Tintin can be a draining experience, and one generally bereft of traditionally dramatic human elements. Yet the film bursts with such exuberance and imagination that even the Uncanny Valley limitations of motion-capture animation vanish in Brobdingnagian sequences so vast they make the special effect showcases of the Indiana Jones films look like the Super-8 pictures Spielberg made as a teenager. However well or poorly Spielberg's crack team of British writers capture the spirit of Hergé comics, Tintin is remarkable first and foremost for allowing one of cinema's biggest dreamers the opportunity to do anything he wants to do.

Spielberg's camera, already so active and eager in his live-action films, is here unmoored from any hindrance, be it spatial dimensions, production safety or physics itself. Every shot swoons, tilts, zooms and soars with elegance, creating such fluid motion that scenes routinely flow into each other through sudden inversions of  scale and setting. A massive setpiece shrinks into a puddle of water stepped in as the focus shifts, or a camelback trek through an endless desert forms on the back of a hand. Such segues make the film even more vertiginous, a dizzying, unabashed exercise in style over substance, one constantly in motion as the 3D communicate the unstoppable momentum, not unlike action lines in a comic. But when the artist in question is one of the medium's great stylists, sometimes it's more rewarding to simply sit back and be wowed.

Even the traditionally animated opening credits evoke a sense of goofy yet epic exploration, condensing the entire film to a shadowplay of whimsy and intrigue. The camera finally pulls back from this dynamic opening to reveal the 3D world, which instantly looks different from previous forays into mocap. Faces still have an awkward stiffness to them, but clear advances in the technology make for a far greater range of expressions and naturalness than the clumsy, even repellent animation that has obsessed Robert Zemeckis for whatever reason. Tintin himself (Jaime Bell) is the most porcelain-looking of all the characters, but his immediately apparent and unquenchable thirst for adventure makes his unblemished face endearing rather than creepy, and the grizzlier, more textured friends and foes he encounters on his journey make for artfully simple black/white designations of comic book heroes and less pure beings.

The animation in broader terms is simply stunning. The jam-packed mise-en-scène is never incoherent, and the detail of background characters is so good that some looked just like real people. Coordinating what Spielberg wanted took plenty of man-hours (he completed the physical filming for the motion capture by March 2009 and animation has taken up the intervening two years), but the results are breathtaking, complex yet ultimately lucid. The animation also benefits from the lighting consultation of Spielberg's regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, whose advice here benefits the film's gorgeous aesthetic as much as Roger Deakins' work on Wall•E made the animation not merely technically beautiful but artfully arranged. Kamiński helps lay out a noirish world in the first half that makes brilliant (in both senses of the word) use of blinding lights piercing fog and night to illuminate and disorient in equal measure. Street lamps, headlights, even muzzle flashes have a lyrical quality to them only enhanced by the danger they signify.

Combining several of the comic book stories into one narrative, Tintin moves at breakneck speed, instantly introducing a model of a ship that contains part of a guide to treasure and spiraling into a global trek by the end of the first act. The action moves at a similar pace, with even a minor apartment chase between a cat and Tintin's trusty dog Snowy working as a display of uninhibited camera movement. But soon such silly bits morph into gigantic, freewheeling pieces of constantly evolving mise-en-scène that layers utter pandemonium without the shot ever losing focus. To pick but one of several lengthy examples, a chase through the streets of Middle Eastern land "Bagghar" features Tintin, Snowy and their perpetually drunken but necessary ally Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis, yet again putting in an expressive and multifaceted mocap performance) chasing after the stolen clues to sunken treasure. Spielberg piles on the absurdities, from a misfired rocket exploding a dam to a tank jutting into view, dragging along the building it unsuccessfully attempted to drive through. The action even splinters off in different directions, but Spielberg manages to track one character until he comes back in contact with another headed in an opposite direction, not cutting but merely arranging the progression of stunts until everything folds back to the other focal point.

It's tempting just to list all of the things that happen in any given sequence, though that would necessitate several thousand words to simply account for the objects in the frame. But the sheer giddiness of the construction is hard to shake off; after a decade and a half of more serious, dark films, Spielberg evokes open-mouthed, ecstatic wonderment for the first time since he panned up to show that brachiosaur in Jurassic Park. I went into Tintin looking forward to whatever the astonishing writing team of Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish came up with, but as much as I enjoyed their jokes—a scene with bumbling Interpol detectives Thompson and Thompson and a pickpocket achieves screwball-era verbal acrobatics—I kept coming back to Spielberg's unleashed id, where his visual creativity moves unbounded and his childlike exuberance and darker thoughts can coexist in ways they never quite managed to in, say, Hook. Through Haddock, the film touches upon the notions of failure, depression and redemption, and I noted that, after that absurd retooling of E.T., Spielberg no longer seems to have a problem with guns appearing in a film ostensibly for children (hell, Tintin himself gets off some rounds). But even those more grim facets cannot for one moment lessen the overwhelming delight of the picture, one of the purest expressions by one of the most resolutely uplifting of filmmakers.

1 comment:

  1. So glad to see you enjoyed this as much as I did, Jake. I've only seen it once, but I actually have a good feeling it will hold up with repeated viewings. And we still have one more Spielberg film to go before the year is out... man, the suspense is unbearable.

    Through Haddock, the film touches upon the notions of failure, depression and redemption

    Very true.

    I only just recently became a fan of the Herge comics, but I must confess I went into Tintin with a slight fear that it would be one of Spielberg's more "impersonal" films: strong on exhileration, weak on emotion. And in some ways, maybe it is. But I do think Spielberg locates a human center in the story by focusing primarily on Haddock's loss of dignity and Tintin's attempt to help him find his footing again -- as a man and as a true Haddock.

    I've been hearing some complaints by other critics that, next to Haddock, Tintin pales a character. To me, that's okay -- he's sort of like the audience's window in the lives of the other characters, much in the same way Hugo was for Georges Melies.