The Adventures of Tintin

Although I have been quick to reinforce the perception that most current 3D films are gimmicks (see for example, my complaints about the latest Spy Kids), I have been intrigued by the somewhat more innovative uses of the technique by Martin Scorsese in Hugo, and more recently, by Steven Spielberg in his adaptation of the Belgian comic by Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin. It’s tempting to read Spielberg’s film as a lightweight, kiddie-oriented rehashing of his Indiana Jones films, but I think this interpretation misses out on how the film is subtly navigating some of the questions raised by adaptation.

Even though I had some awareness of the popularity of Tintin in France and Belgium, I was somewhat unaware of the extent of that popularity until a Twitter conversation this afternoon (thanks to some of my comics-loving and Francophone tweeps) and a quick review of the box office numbers for the film, which has made almost as much money in France as it has in the United States. In fact, the announcement of two planned sequels seems to be built upon the film’s overseas success, even though the film has struggled here in the U.S.  As a result, many U.S. critics seemed unprepared for the movie’s engagement with the original, often reading the film primarily as an auteurist product tied to Spielberg’s preoccupations with childhood and B-movie adventurism (even relatively favorable reviews emphasize the connection to Indiana Jones).

I’m still in the process of researching the comic, but I think it’s important to consider how the film functions as an adaptation and how that relates more directly to Spielberg’s status as a filmaker.  It’s worth noting that the film’s official website both resembles the pages of a comic and provides quite a bit of backstory about the comic, including a detailed discussion of The Secret of the Unicorn, the adventure that provides the basis for the first film. We are also given quite a bit of information about the history of the Tintin character, including how to draw him and how Hergé developed the character. In essence, the website establishes Tintin as an auteurist project, one that was a crafted narrative.

In turn, Spielberg’s film contains a number of these elements, seeking to remind us that even in the age of 3D and performance capture, movies are not merely industrial objects. Instead, Spielberg hopes to show that they are works of art. This artistic signature comes across in part via some of the more inspired effects, especially a long sequence in which Tintin and his embattled crew move from a burning lifeboat to an airplane that crash lands in the Sahara Desert to a chase through a Moroccan city, all in the space of a single shot.

Dana Stevens’ review in Slate also touches upon one of the other challenges of the film–depicting realistic characters via the animation technique of performance capture. Stevens makes reference to the idea of the “uncanny valley,” the idea that when human replicas (whether robotic or animated) look “almost” human, they inspire repulsion in audiences or observers. That didn’t seem like a particular concern for me here, in part because the characters, especially the Thompsons and Tintin himself, seemed so clearly taken from the comic book page. For Maryann Johanson, however, the artificiality seemed to work against her appreciation of the film, in part because the use of CGI helped to reinforce the perception that Tintin and his crew were never in any serious danger. As she put it, “Raiders of the Lost Ark had soul….That sort of organicness is utterly missing from Tintin. There’s only so much organicness that can be faked via CGI that beautifully replicates grass or stone or skin or whatever.”

I’m still exploring my response to the film, in part because it may be something I will work into a couple of ongoing writing projects on 3D. The question for me isn’t whether the film is “good,” at least not in any traditional sense. Instead, I’m interested in exploring how the film engages with the politics and practices of adaptation and how those issues are navigated through the use of digital effects, especially 3D. I’ll admit that the 3D looked “better” in Tintin than it has in most other 3D films I’ve seen, but as I was watching, I felt myself thinking about how Spielberg, like Scorsese in Hugo, seemed to be trying to figure out how to tell stories using the new visual tools available to him.


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