The fearless young reporter Tintin – armed with tuft and pup – flickers onto China’s screens today, weeks in advance of the US opening in December. (That’s right folks, we’re actually getting an earlier crack at one of the year’s big movie events. Neener.) The motion-capture animation based on the Belgian comic artist Herge‘s beloved books is a pretty standard Spielberg experience, largely entertaining through its galloping action, beautiful cinematography and hearty gags. Read on as we discuss its worldwide reception thus far, high and low points, and what else to catch in theaters.
First, I should let you all know that I watched the movie by myself, with about three other lonesome Chinese folks scattered in a large theater. Not the best setup for a big, fun movie like this. I was able to see past this, but still, I recommend going with some friends, or not watching the earliest show on a Tuesday morning. (Hard to beat 3-D for RMB 50 though … )
For those less familiar, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn follows an I’m-not-a-boy-not-yet-a-man reporter as he chases down the villainous Sakharine (performed by 007 incumbent Daniel Craig). The man is strangely obsessed with a mysterious set of model ships all styled after a 1600s schooner called The Unicorn. Entangled in all this is the whisky-soaked Captain Haddock, whose ancestor was the captain of the original sunken Unicorn. At stake for Haddock: copious amounts of buried treasure, his family’s honor and sobriety. This, of course, is just one of the many stories Herge created in his original comics. Time Out has a good piece on Tintin’s travels in China in other stories, which helps explain this country’s unlikely affection for a character who’s a European journalist.
I should disclaim that my knowledge of Tintin goes about as far back as seeing the T-shirts in Yashow for the first time years ago and thinking, "Who’s this Tintin kid, and what’s he doing in Tibet?" (I may or may not have gone so far as to wonder about his connections with Brad Pitt.) Anyway, I’m glad to say I’m a little more savvy now, but never claimed to be an old-school fan of the kewpie-esque hero. Since the film’s release in the UK (Oct 26), web-dwellers have been abuzz about just why the Guardian hates hates hates hates hates hates this new movie adaption, publishing not just one but six articles decrying its handling of Herge’s work. Perhaps it’s my lack of childhood familiarity with the comics that gives me license to enjoy the new movie. I don’t feel the need to fervently defend the leisurely pace of Tintin’s near scrapes and action sets in comic form. (Uh, buddy, I’m pretty sure there’s an obvious solution for that one: Stick to the comics, and don’t bother with the movie at all.)
Basically, unless you’re one of the crazy Tintinologists hired by the Guardian to get back at Steven Spielberg for spilling champagne on Alan Rusbridger’s tie on the red carpet, you’ll likely enjoy this film. To the crazed reviewers: Why don’t you take a page from Haddock’s book, kick back with a glug or two of whisky and just relax?
- Andy Serkis’ Captain Haddock as a sloshed sidekick. Sometimes the script handled his alcoholism with more preachy seriousness than preferable (was Alcoholics Anonymous consulted on this?), but his performance of the gruff and bumbling seaman was endearing and well-timed. I wouldn’t mind if the next in the series were called The Adventures of Captain Haddock.
- Also, I’m not sure what the challenges of water-rendering are when it comes to motion capture, but the film’s water scenes were absolutely luscious. The clarity, the texture, the color. It was a nice feast for the eyes, especially in a sequence where Haddock imagines the desert turning into the tossing sea, with the Unicorn ploughing through its peaks and valleys. Props for this must go to Peter Jackson, whose studio Weta Digital handled the animation.
- Of all the action sequences, my favorite was a way over-the-top chase scene through a colorful Moroccan port city. Realistic, or even mildly probable? Not at all. But it had great pacing, hilarious sight gags and a nice view of Morocco.
- What can I say, I’m a sucker for Snowy. That is one smart dog.
- Tintin could have used a little more personality. I hear he’s meant to be rather bland, a foil for the crazies he surrounds himself with, but I’ve done my homework and even in the comics, there’s more of a boyish spirit about him that was missing in the movie. I’m happy to dispense with the womanizing that "complicates" an action hero in other franchises (Indiana Jones, James Bond, etc.), but surely there are other devices for giving an action hero depth?
- I’m still not the hugest fan of motion-capture animation. I just don’t really understand why people would get actors to act something out in real life, then convert it into animation that looks really close to real life. It’s like vegan fake meat. Just … why?
- OK, Spielberg, some of your gags are getting kind of old. The whole "hero drives while sidekick shoots a gun in the wrong direction to hapless effect" bit was funny the first couple times, but it’s really become a crutch.
Despite these (and the Guardian‘s) critiques, Tintin’s doing well on Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and the like, but it’s also getting high marks on Chinese sites like Douban.com (8.1/10) and Mtime.com (9.1/10). Makes sense, as it has the one-two punch that generally attracts Chinese audiences: technological prowess and good animation (see Transformers, Kung Fu Panda).
Let’s hope box office numbers do well here, so distributors might be "inspired" to make movie versions of Tintin and the Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet. And by "inspired" I mean getting visions of Chinese people turning into dollar signs as they stumble into theaters.
Meanwhile, it’s a pretty full month for movie fun. Head to theaters in the next couple weeks and you can catch Japanese anime release Detective Conan: Quarter of Silence, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and cheaper thrills like The Immortals (starring Mickey Rourke), the Green Lantern and the Hugh Jackman vehicle, Real Steel, about boxing robots.