Dir. Steven Spielberg
(2011, PG, 101 min)

The Adventures of Tintin is a visual marvel that reinforces my growing belief that animation is becoming the ideal medium for large-scale spectacle. Locations, landscapes, and vistas are limited only by the imagination. Shots are not bound by the logistics of physical space or camera movement; they can go anywhere and track any subject for any length of time. Action set pieces do not require props or pyrotechnics – or unnecessary risk to stunt actors – and technology has advanced to the point where CGI has the look and weight of reality, or better, as it can achieve a dreamy un-reality that is even more dazzling. Director Steven Spielberg, who has directed many action films before, seems liberated by the open world animation provides him with, and his action scenes have great excitement, originality, and fluidity of movement.

The story is not quite at the same level of wonder. We’re thrust into the mechanics of the plot from the very first scene, and it feels like most of the dialogue from that point forward is functional rather than meaningful, providing the needed exposition to advance the film to the next scene. The story involves a pirate ship called the Unicorn and the treasure it carried before it sank to the bottom of the ocean. Boy journalist Tintin (Jamie Bell) is on the case, aided by his trusty dog Snowy and hard-drinking sea captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is the key to solving the mystery. They follow the clues from Europe to Africa and back again, traveling by land, sea, and air, but at just 101 minutes the narrative feels cramped.

Though based on the popular Belgian comic book series by Hergé, the film’s spirit is all Indiana Jones, from its exotic locales to its old-world artifacts, spirited chase sequences, and doltish henchmen who never do seem to hit what they’re aiming at. Steven Moffat wrote a draft of the screenplay, and then Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish revised it, and it’s a bit disappointing that such an auspicious trio was restrained by so much fussy plot. Moffat is currently the executive producer of Doctor Who and Sherlock in the UK and is to my mind one of the most gifted fantasy storytellers currently working. Wright wrote and directed the genre-bending films Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Hot Fuzz. And Cornish recently wrote and directed the acclaimed sci-fi comedy Attack the Block. In their script they nevertheless find opportunities for wit amidst the adventuring, especially when it involves Haddock, who is a joyous font of humor, and a pair of clueless detectives named Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), who have one scene in particular with a suspected pickpocket that is a three-way ballet of comic imbecility.

The film has already grossed more than $200 million overseas, where the original comic books are more familiar, but its opening weekend in the US was surprisingly soft. I’ve always thought it silly the idea that an unfamiliar subject would keep audiences away from a family-friendly Spielberg film (produced by Peter Jackson no less, and made with the performance-capture technology that created Avatar), because aren’t most film subjects unfamiliar before you see them? How Tintin continues to perform will determine whether a second film is made. Meanwhile, Alvin and the Chipmunks is on its second sequel. Go figure.

Note: Though primarily marketed as a 3D film, I watched it in 2D.