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.
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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.