Tuesday, 25 October 2011
'The Adventures of Tintin' review:
In the popular imagination Steven Spielberg was once a name that stood for high-class family friendly adventure, with the Hollywood powerhouse having helped to redefine the modern spectacle-led blockbuster in the 1980s: directing the iconic likes of 'E.T.' and the 'Indiana Jones' trilogy, whilst producing 'The Goonies', 'Gremlins' and 'Back to the Future'. Yet in 1993 everything seemed to change for the filmmaker who suddenly "went serious". He'd always had a wider ranging filmography than he's given credit (including films as diverse as farcical comedy '1941', TV-made horror 'Duel', David Lean-style epic 'Empire of the Sun' and the romantic drama 'Always'), but snaring the Best Director statuette at the Academy Awards that year - for the black and white and grimly serious 'Schindler's List' - seems to have provoked an almost wholesale abandonment of the superior family fare that was his particular genius.
Aside from two poorly received sequels - 1997's 'Jurassic Park: The Lost World' and 2008's 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' - the years since his austere holocaust epic have yielded well-meaning slavery drama 'Amistad', sentimental WWII drama 'Saving Private Ryan', forgettable Israeli vengeance thriller 'Munich' and the melancholy, Kubrick-devised 'AI: Artificial Intelligence'. Even his returns to comparatively light material have been more adult-focussed than his reputation might once have suggested, with the Tom Hanks comedies 'Catch Me If You Can' and 'The Terminal' and Tom Cruise sci-fi movies 'Minority Report' and 'War of the Worlds'. Even his output as a producer has become more cynical and less winsomely old fashioned, as best displayed by the putrid, morally/creatively bankrupt 'Transformers' movies and the humourless, overblown 'Cowboys and Aliens'.
Yet even as he readies the "worthy" award bait 'War Horse' for release just in time for back-slapping season, this year Spielberg makes a welcome return to his old stomping ground: bidding to entertain children worldwide all over again with an animated adaptation of 'The Adventures of Tintin'. Whilst he's long held an interest in animation - producing the fondly remembered Don Bluth films of the 80s ('An American Tale' and 'The Land Before Time') and several terrific 90s TV series (including 'Tiny Toon Adventures' and 'Animaniacs') - this comic book adaptation marks his debut directorial effort in the medium (as well as in 3D), and has seen him work closely in collaboration with fellow live action specialist Peter Jackson - the planned director of the film's sequel, should it perform as expected at the box office this winter.
'Tintin' finds its director in playful mood, subtly referencing some of his earlier films with neat visual touches, and it's no surprise if the film feels as though it's channelling a younger Spielberg. After all, his adaptation of this material has had a long gestation period, beginning with the acquisition of the film rights as early as 1984 - a year after the death of the books' author Hergé, who named the American as the material's ideal director. Over the years it's been touted as a live action film (the original concept would have seen Jack Nicholson as alcoholic Scott Captain Haddock) before finally winding up a dazzling example of motion capture, courtesy of Jackson's New Zealand effects outfit WETA. Drawing material largely from the books 'The Crab With the Golden Claws', 'The Secret of the Unicorn', 'Red Rackham's Treasure' and - unexpectedly - 'The Castafiore Emerald', the adaptation sees intrepid reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his faithful dog Snowy trying to discover the significance of a small model ship stolen from by the mysterious aristocrat Sakharine (Daniel Craig).
Sakharine (a red herring non-villain in the original) is hoping to uncover some legendary pirate booty, whilst also settling a score with the oblivious, self-pitying drunkard Captain Haddock (mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis), whose ship he has stolen. This inter-generational feud plot-line is in an invention of British screenwriters Steven Moffat, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright which serves to give a scrapbook array of original elements something of a dramatic through-line and a clear baddie. It's a change that will drive die-hard Tintin fans nuts, but it's a smart move from a narrative point of view. That the grudge match is resolved in a credibility stretching battle between two cargo cranes (staged as a colossal sword fight) is a pity, but the idea itself is compelling.
On the whole the changes are on a smaller scale and relate to the order of events rather than the spirit of Hergé's books. The characters are photo-realistic renderings in the artist's own distinctive style of caricature, which are stylised enough to avoid the ugly, unsettling "uncanny valley" effect felt strongly in the recent Robert Zemeckis animations (such as 'Beowulf') and characters, like the bumbling British detectives Thomson and Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), are portrayed faithfully. As the titular hero Bell acquits himself well, portraying him as a capable young adult where so many other adaptations over the years (notably the rubbish French-Canadian animated series) cast him as irritatingly boyish. Snowy is also deployed well - an effective aid to his master and an equally effective excuse for lengthy spoken exposition (in this respect Snowy is the original Chewbacca/R2-D2).
The stand-out bit of action is an extended flashback as Haddock enthusiastically relives an encounter between his 17th century ancestor Sir Francis Haddock and a pirate ship on the high seas. The jaw-dropping and inventive choreography of this sequence is much more high-octane than its source equivalent and - as some would have it - marks a departure from Hergé's more grounded and meticulously researched world. Though coming via Haddock's drunken storytelling and delivered with a great sense of fun, the filmmakers come away credibility intact.
Tintin is apparently virtually unknown in the US, so Spielberg might (with some justification) have sought to Americanise this very European series in the course of adapting it. However fans will be pleased to learn that the story begins in a timeless (non-specific early twentieth century) Europe, with Tommy guns and classic cars (Tintin doesn't have an iPhone 4) and exclusively features actors with quintessentially "old world" accents. The tone of this adventure varies between brightly coloured 'Indiana Jones' style Saturday matinee action, broad pratfalls and the oppressive mood of film noir, with this blend meshing comfortably. It's also the most gutsy children's film in a while and doesn't talk down to its young audience (note the irksome, charmless 'Happy Feet Two' was trailed beforehand as if to highlight the current low standard of kids movies). For instance, Tintin wields a gun - a surprise considering the director infamously replaced guns with walkie-talkies digitally in his "20th Anniversary Edition" of 'E.T.' - and Haddock slurps whiskey like there's no tomorrow.
It's fair to say that there are too many frantic chase sequences and the film feels a tad long, but overall Spielberg and Jackson's take on the material is respectful and makes for suitably exciting viewing. It is easily the most unashamedly fun Spielberg has been since 'Jurassic Park' almost two decades ago and, though I suspect it's going to prove an interesting sidestep rather than a sign of things to come, I'm very glad he's snuck in this elaborate caveat ahead of the inevitably yawnsome 'War Horse'. A film which may well win him another Oscar and confirm my suspicion that - in terms of award recognition - it's better to be a passable dramatist than a world class showman. How different things might have been if he'd received Academy recognition for 'E.T.' At least we have 'The Adventures of Tintin'.
'The Adventures of Tintin' is released in the UK from tomorrow (October 26th) and has been rated 'PG' by the BBFC.