When Georges Remi was a schoolboy in Belgium during the First World War, he would draw cartoons about a boy playing tricks on the German soldiers who’d occupied his country. He refined this idea when he was a teenager and created a comic strip about Totor, an adventurous Boy Scout. After graduation, Remi took the penname of Herge and went to work for a Belgian newspaper where he produced a weekly children’s supplement. While there, he came up with the idea of a teen reporter who has adventures all over the world, taking inspiration from a real-life French investigative journalist, Albert Londres. In 1929, the first of the adventures of Tintin was published.
Herge would do extensive research of the settings for his stories, and incorporate contemporary political situations. For instance, The Blue Lotus (1934) takes place in Japanese-occupation China. The Tintin books became a huge international success, eventually being translated into 50 languages and selling over 200 million copies.
The one place where Tintin did not catch on, though, was in the United States. It remained a specialty item that a few people discovered and cherished (like the French comic book series, Asterix).
Now Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have given US audiences The Adventures of Tintin. It’s a chance to experience the thrill and fun of Tintin in a movie drawn (you could say) from three of Herge’s books.
While shopping in an open-air market, Tintin (Jamie Bell) finds a beautifully-made model of a three-masted ship, the Unicorn. He purchases it, just before it can be bought by Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Sakharine offers him whatever he wants to sell him the model, but Tintin refuses. As he leaves the market, another man warns Tintin to be careful of Sakharine. Tintin takes the model home, where his dog Snowy accidentally breaks it while chasing a cat. The man who warned Tintin in the market winds up being murdered on Tintin’s front step. However, he manages to leave Tintin a cryptic clue. That night the model is stolen, but when it was broken a slim metal case hidden within the ship fell out and was missed by the thieves. With Snowy’s help, Tintin finds it and discovers a clue to a treasure written on thin parchment.
The parchment is stolen by a pickpocket, but Tintin’s friends, the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg) are hot on the pickpocket’s trail. Before Tintin can investigate further, he’s kidnapped by Sakharine’s henchmen. Snowy chases the kidnappers, and when they load Tintin onto a ship, Snowy manages to sneak aboard and free his friend. Tintin discovers another hostage on board, the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Escaping from the ship, Tintin, Snowy and Haddock must race to collect all the clues to the Unicorn’s treasure before Sakharine can get his hands on them.
Spielberg has used motion capture technology to create this animated movie, though the renderings are so realistic you’ll have to remind yourself the visuals are computer-generated. The motion capture process has the cast actually acting out their parts, and then the performances are fed into a computer where digital animation is added. Serkis is the premier actor working in this technology, having created Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Motion capture was championed by Robert Zemekis and used for full movies such as The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Disney’s recent A Christmas Carol. However, the nuclear bomb Mars Needs Moms (Cost: $150 million; Gross: $20 million), led Disney to shutter Zemekis’ company, ImageMovers Digital. Producer Peter Jackson and the geniuses at Weta Digital have removed the stiffness that was a hallmark of the ImageMover pictures and given Tintin a completely natural feel. Spielberg’s incredible eye for camera shots translates seamlessly into this new medium. (Take a look at the mirror shot in the market, shortly after the beginning of the film, and you’ll see what I mean.) You’ll see a strong resemblance in this movie to another in Spielberg’s oeuvre, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The writers who adapted the books are a dream team for this project. Steven Moffat is writing and producing the current Doctor Who (he wrote the classic – and scary – episode “Blink”). Edgar Wright wrote and directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the underappreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Joe Cornish is also a writer/director, having done last year’s gangs vs. alien invaders movie, Attack the Block. They’ve created a slam-bang adventure with a strong dose of comedy.
Jamie Bell brings the right amount of sincerity to the role of Tintin so it doesn’t slip into – well, caricature. You can accept that this teenaged reporter will know all sorts of arcane facts. Serkis gives a strong comedic performance as Captain Haddock as well as his ancestor, Sir Frances Haddock. Craig is especially effective as Sakharine, though you may find yourself checking the credits to confirm that it is really him. It’s fun to have Pegg and Frost back together again, and they’re delightful as Thompson and Thomson.
Once again, US audiences have been a bit slow to warm to Tintin, as the movie’s made only about $60 million in four weeks of release in the States. But overseas it has become a solid success, approaching $300 million. Hopefully the US theater goers will catch up with the rest of the world and see this delightful, thrilling movie.