Saturday, 29 October 2011

Tintin and the Case of the Missing Soul

by Nick Pierce

Being a loyal Asterix fan as a child, I paid to see the latest blockbusting behemoth set loose from the stable of Spielberg (£11.50 for a 3D showing, thank you very much) with only the most superficial level of knowledge regarding Herge’s beloved comic book series. Whereas the stories of the aforementioned Gaul had an anarchic wit and edge that kept them appealing even to a modern reader, it seemed to me that the Tintin books were slightly old-fashioned and unremarkable. I mean, if one had the option between hanging out with super-powered, fun-loving resistance fighters or a pipsqueak reporter and his ratty little dog, what’s the obvious decision?

And indeed the new multi-million dollar adaptation is notable mainly for just how unremarkable it is. It drifts by for roughly two hours, providing mildly diverting entertainment, and then it finishes. Three days on from seeing it, I can say in all honesty that it hasn’t entered into my head once since I left the screening. Spielberg’s output has become notoriously scattershot in quality in recent years, and whilst this is far from the nadir of the fourth Indiana Jones atrocity, it’s somewhat depressing that the former king of Hollywood seems unable to muster anything more than the forgettable fluff of an efficient hack.

On the plus side, from a technical standpoint it’s noteworthy as a feat of processing power and design, answering at least some of the criticisms typically levelled at motion-captured animations. The characters don’t have quite the same level of fish-eyed creepiness we’re used to seeing, although at moments there’s still an odd sluggishness to their movements that detracts from the dynamism of the action sequences, as if the atmosphere of Tintin-world is composed of treacle.  And the camera certainly moves in a more liberated fashion than would be possible in reality with the constraints imposed by physics. This newfound freedom is harnessed most elaborately in the third-act car chase around a bustling desert city, which takes place entirely within one shot, the camera soaring over rooftops, careering down narrow alleys and swooping through collapsing buildings. The setpiece feels sort of like a spiritual descendant of the much-feted opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil, but whereas the graceful, prying camera movements of that noir classic were impressive because they were done for real, nowadays we all know that it can just be fabricated in a computer instead. As a result, the action scenes feel curiously uninvolving and devoid of suspense, the same basic flaw that I felt dogged Avatar, although this romp is certainly a less bloated and flatulent affair than that. You might be slumped back in your cinema seat with an amused smile on your face, but you certainly won’t be sat on the edge of it.

Of course, it might have been easier to overlook this if the story had been more exciting and the characters more engaging. Considering the pedigree of talent involved in the script (Moffat, Wright and Cornish) it’s surprising just how by-the-numbers it is, a bog-standard hunt for pirate treasure that fizzles out about twenty minutes before the movie decides to end, with a climactic reveal that will leave you wondering what all the fuss was about. Believe me, the prized artifact is a very long way from the Nazi-melting Ark in Raiders on the scale of awesomery.

The prevailing blandness of the principal players, enlivened only by Andy Serkis’ spirited and film-salvaging rendition of Captain Haddock, unfortunately finds its worst manifestation in Tintin himself. I can’t comment on whether or not it’s a quality of the comics, but here he’s about as one-dimensional as protagonists come, alternating between breathless know-it-all and whiny know-it-all. The way he keeps feeling the need to refer to himself as a journalist, when he doesn’t set pen to paper once throughout the movie’s entire duration, also gives rise to presumably unintentional comedy.

Perhaps I’ve been a little harsh on Tintin in this review. After all, there are genuinely enjoyable moments of spectacle on offer here, but one can’t help but expect more from the powerhouse production duo of the Berg and Peter Jackson, since we know they’re capable of attaining dizzying heights in mainstream entertainment. It’s tempting to conclude that if the computers had been abandoned for once and more effort put into fashioning a decent narrative, Tintin could have been a return to form, rather than a glossy digital echo of past glories. The other problem with building a film around its technology is that said technology has a habit of becoming outdated - increasingly quickly, it has to be said - effectively rendering the film without merit or interest. If you want an example, watch the Dire Straits' music video for Money for Nothing: once a demonstration of cutting-edge computer effects, it's now laughably crude and clumsy. I wouldn't be surprised if a similar fate awaits this version of Tintin: a huge heap of studio money for what is at heart a whole mess of nothing.