Though he wasn't the first to use the technology, nor was he the last, no one worked harder to tie himself to the history of motion-capture filmmaking the way Robert Zemeckis did. He put everything on the line to develop the process, directing and/or producing no less than five entirely motion-captured movies in the span of seven years. The practice remains very controversial, but I think it's generally agreed that Zemeckis' hard work was not in vain. Though the movies varied in quality, their animation increased to a plainly visible degree with each film. All of that came to an end last March, with the atomic bomb known to film history as "Mars Needs Moms." In the fallout, Disney shut down Zemeckis' motion-capture studio and scuttled his developing mo-cap films. Flash forward to October 23rd, 2011, when Steven Spielberg debuted The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the first in a potential franchise of motion-capture films based on the world-famous comic series.
The old king is dead. Long live the king.
If you've never heard of Tintin, then you're probably an American. Tintin is a very unusual figure in that he's achieved a tremendous amount of fame everywhere in the world except the U.S.A. If I had to guess why, I'd assume it has to do with "Tintin in America" -- one of the very first Tintin stories -- which painted such a racist, offensive, and horribly researched portrayal of the States that its initial American printing had to be heavily censored. And mind you, this was back in the 1930s. Yes, this was too inflammatory and offensive even for those who were living in the middle of the Jim Crow era. It's that bad.
Anyway, it should come as no surprise that a good chunk of this film's crew comes from abroad. More than that, this assembled collection of talent is really damn good. The screenplay was written by three Brits named Steven Moffat (showrunner of "Doctor Who" redux and the awesome "Sherlock" modernization), Edgar Wright (the mad genius behind "Spaced," Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Joe Cornish (If you haven't already bought Attack the Block, do so now. I'll wait.). Also assisting are executive producer Peter Jackson and his minions at WETA, who are collectively perhaps the world's most famous New Zealand natives.
So how did a Yank like Steven Spielberg get handed the reins to this adaptation? Well, it seems that Spielberg discovered Tintin after a reviewer compared the comics to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg subsequently became a great admirer of Tintin's creator, Herge, and the feeling was mutual. Herge entrusted Spielberg with the rights to make a film adaptation, though Herge died shortly before they were to formally meet on the subject. The rights were given posthumously, and almost thirty years later, Spielberg finally proved that Herge chose the best possible man for the job.
I could describe the story of Tintin, but there isn't really much point. Like all of Tintin's stories (and yes, I've read a few), this one begins when Tintin and his loyal dog, Snowy, stumble into an adventure. They work their way out by way of the hero's dumb luck and peculiarly genius-level intellect. The plot is silly, paper-thin, cliched, and improbable. I really didn't care for this style of storytelling in comic form, but Spielberg and WETA really make it work. Let me count the ways.
For starters, this movie could only have been made in motion-capture. The filmmakers use this technology to extraordinary effect, delivering characters exaggerated enough to look like Herge's work, but anchored in reality just enough not to look too cartoonish. More importantly, this movie utilizes visuals, camera movements, scene changes, and lengthy one-shot scenes that would be difficult and/or impossible to create with live-action photography. Even within the realm of CGI, this is boundary-pushing stuff.
The movie succeeds where Herge failed because this movie has energy. Not only is the action fast-paced, but it's also brilliantly staged and devilishly creative in execution. It's even quite darkly violent in places, but not remotely bad enough to leave any emotional scars. There are gunfights, there are swordfights, there are sea battles, there are car chases, and there's even a crane duel. Seriously, there is a duel between two men in construction cranes. Where else in the wide world of cinema are you going to see that done, and done in a way that's so captivating to watch?
As for fidelity in adaptation, this film was based on three Tintin stories: "The Secret of the Unicorn," "Red Rackham's Treasure," and "The Crab with the Golden Claws." Though the movie is very faithful to the characters and to the ridiculously heightened world of Tintin, the filmmakers did a fine job of taking the series apart and reassembling the pieces in such a way as to make something entirely new and entertaining. Even so, the filmmakers went the extra mile and added entirely new pieces, which resulted in the jaw-dropping action scenes mentioned earlier. Bianca Castafiore is another example, as she's an existing Tintin character who makes a brief appearance here, despite having never appeared in any of the three source stories. Last but not least, it's worth noting that there's an artist character with a speaking cameo at the start of the film, clearly designed to resemble Herge himself. It was an inconspicuous tribute, but a moving one.
Speaking of the characters, motion-capture technology is still a few polishes short of photo-realism, but the character designs are still more than good enough. The actors all acquit themselves wonderfully, with Jamie Bell delivering a particularly good performance as the everyman Tintin. Andy Serkis plays the pivotal role of Captain Archibald Haddock, and of course he's phenomenal. Robert Zemeckis be damned, Andy Serkis is the true master of motion-capture. I should also point out that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost serve perfectly well as the bumbling pair of Thomson and Thompson, though I really wish they could have gotten more screentime and better jokes. By far the greatest surprise came from Daniel Craig, here playing the bad guy of the piece. Craig does an amazingly good job chewing scenery as an arch-villain, so much so that I'd love to see him try it in live-action sometime. As for Snowy, he was done entirely in traditional animation, but the animators did a fine job of making the terrier look and act like a real flesh-and-blood character.
Finally, I've got to talk about John Williams. He turns in a wonderful score here, one that nicely reflects the movie's scope. It's eclectic, it's mostly upbeat, and it has a slightly retro feel in places. Very well done.
The Adventures of Tintin is a superficial and silly movie, but it's brainless in a way that's charming, energetic, and creative to a staggering degree. Though the 3D can get slightly gimmicky at times and the mo-cap designs are still a touch flawed, the visuals are otherwise superlative. A ton of talent went into making this movie, and it shows with every lovingly-designed frame. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and I'd highly recommend it to action-seekers of all ages.