In the opening scenes of The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, the new 3D motion-capture-powered animated spectacle from director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson, one character in an open marketplace happily informs a stranger, “Everybody knows him. That’s Tintin.”
And yet, after two hours of nearly perpetual, elaborately choreographed action, the audience still doesn’t know who Tintin is.
Those who have lined up to see a comic book character they already know and love may recognize him, but if they do, they’re only recognizing a haircut, an outfit, and the elements around him. To all appearances, Tintin is as blank as any character a film has ever been built around. That signature pinch of hair on the front of his head is actually a clue: Tintin isn’t a cartoon character with thought balloons. He is a balloon, and that point on his head is the knot tying it off! As Manohla Dargis describes him in The New York Times, he’s “lifelike, but without the pulse of real life.”
The boy android in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence had one hundred times more life than Tintin. In fact, Tintin sometimes feels like a movie that the “mechas” might have assembled inside their own circuitry, unable to locate what it is that differentiates human beings from computers.
I almost feel that I should congratulate Jamie Bell, the actor whose motion-capture performance is animated here — it takes some real genius to create a character so utterly devoid of personality, so convincingly lacking in history, so unaffected by fear or physical stress, so free of meaningful relationships or concerns.
That is a problem.
It doesn’t help that the character who becomes Tintin’s fellow adventurer, the almost perpetually intoxicated Captain Archibald Haddock (“played” by Andy Serkis), is the sort of obnoxious, talkative drunk you try to avoid at parties — flamboyant and exaggerated. When he steals the show from Tintin, you might be tempted to demand that he give it back.
There are plenty of forgettable supporting characters and, strangely, there is not a single female of any importance. Remember the complaints about the lack of women in The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien’s epic feels like a feminist manifesto compared to Tintin, a world in which women appear even more fleetingly than pauses in the film’s action.
Ah, but what about that action, which so many moviegoers are gushing about?
Well, that’s a problem too.
The action in Secret of the Unicorn is as complicated and as carefully engineered as it gets. Throughout, it’s the kind of action that fans of Spielberg’s other action movies — from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Minority Report — love. Chases down sidewalks and streets, chases by car and airplane and ship. Narrow escapes, spectacular explosions, duels on the decks of flaming ships.
But while this action is quite impressive in its Rube-Goldberg-esque design, where is the suspense in action that never bruises its hero, that conspires such preposterous rescues and escapes that we know nothing serious will ever go wrong, that assures us from the opening scenes that all of the apparent danger is just that — apparent danger? Tintin will slip through it as gracefully and confidently as Tweety Bird through the clutches of Sylvester the Cat, but with far less depth of character.
He’s a crash test dummy who never hits a wall. As balloons go, he’s unbreakable.
Further, the animation only distances us further from any sense of suspense, since these can’t properly be called “stunts” and thus convey no real sense of risk. (This is where Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol reigns supreme among 2011’s action-adventure movies.) Animated films can be suspenseful, but they have to cultivate suspense in storytelling and character development, or through action that draws us in and makes us believe. Tintin‘s action overloads the senses. I was checking my watch at the one-hour point.
I’m told that the script by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish interweaves three existing Tintin adventures (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure). There’s a snarling and entirely uninteresting villain named Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine (and it’s interesting that the villain’s name is pronounced like “saccharine” when the whole movie feels like it’s made of frosting). There are two identical and mildly amusing police inspectors voiced by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost who manage to slow the action down from time to time for some delightful but fleeting comic interludes. (I would have preferred a whole movie with these guys, who seem to live in a world of playfulness inspired by Jacques Tati.)
Reading a comic book, you can take your time, study the action, and get to know your characters at a gradual pace. Watching Tintin, you’re tied to the back of a runaway train and told to keep up if you can. I wasn’t very intrigued by the quest, and the more the “secrets” of the Unicorn were revealed, the more underwhelmed I became. And I don’t know that I’ve ever been so thunderstruck and dissatisfied by the film’s abrupt conclusion, which seems to happen during one of the film’s rare pauses. I was still waiting for something that felt significant enough to mark the close of an episode.
Film critic Glenn Kenny mentions Wallace and Gromit in his review, which gave me a sort of “a-ha!” moment. In a short Wallace and Gromit cartoon, we do see action sequences that are similarly elaborate, similarly mechanical, similarly preposterous. And yet, running through it all are a man and his dog whose relationship anchors us to unfolding action. We are happy to chase them through one circus act after another because we enjoy their company. We’d be as happy to sit with them and eat slices of cheese as we are to see them escape the gears of a deadly machine. I watch those claymation cartoons over and over, delighting in their unique camaraderie. I get the feeling, watching Tintin, that if he stopped running he’d vanish like a puff of smoke.
So I’m left not with a finale that gives me any reason to be glad I made the journey, but with a jarring “To Be Continued,” the promise of a sequel that I will make a point to avoid (unless I am powerfully persuaded otherwise by early reviews heralding the arrival of a much, much better movie). This treasure hunt left me without the greatest treasures of all — characters worth visiting, a story worth telling, a reason to care.