Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we’re taking a look at the animated side of things, with 2012’s fantastically epic and jaw-droppingly experimental, The Adventures of Tintin (The Secret of the Unicorn, if you’re nasty and/or English).
I’m not the biggest lover of 3D spectacle, but The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous piece of adventure filmmaking, and one of the few non-Pixar “animated” films released after my youth that I find myself returning to again and again. The world is rich, the story is thrilling, and the skilled technique is on display in every frame. In an age where computer-generated effects seem so commonplace that they can fall short to underwhelming, or be over utilized to the point of distraction, Tintin rides the tightrope between the two with breathtaking ease and success.
Spielberg first came into contact with Tintin when reading reviews for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1983. Unaware of what this word: “Tintin,” meant that people kept using to describe his latest flick, he was eventually turned on to the comics written by Belgian artist Georges Remi, who went by the pen name Hergé. Even though the books were written in French, Stevie was able to understand the story easily, due to his own cinematic language and the brilliance of Hergé’s artwork. Says Spielberg:
"Every frame, every single panel told a story in cinematic terms, including color palette, composition, figures in action, very expressive actions, the way Hergé would pose his characters, almost like he were trying to squeeze out 24 frames in a single frame and succeeding. And that was what I think is the genius of Hergé: It was a movie."
Spielberg was immediately committed to bringing the world of Tintin and his fluffy dog, Snowy, to the big screen. Luckily for him, the new Hergé fan also happened to be the recipient of equal admiration from Hergé himself, who was so delighted in the director’s interest in his work that he proclaimed Spielberg was: “the only person who could ever do Tintin justice.” The two were set to meet and discuss the plans for bringing Tintin and the rest of Hergé’s creations to life, but that same week the artist passed away suddenly due to cardiac arrest connected with complications to a rare bone marrow blood cancer. Hergé’s widow, Fanny Rodwell, continued supporting the director’s dream of adapting Tintin, but after a few failed attempts to crack the script, Spielberg became distracted with his many, many projects throughout the 80s and 90s, and eventually the rights were returned to the Hergé Foundation. After a very close call involving (*thunder strike*) Roman Polanski potentially adapting the material himself, the rights were returned to The Beard in 2001, where he started having the script properly fleshed out by Steven Moffat, eventually landing it in the laps of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish to be finished up. At the same time, Spielberg had been pulled away from his original live-action-mixed-with-animation concept. Peter Jackson, who Spielberg had contacted about developing the technology to create a computer-generated Snowy, insisted the film be motion capture (at 0:54), with all of the new advances in the medium, that he had helped develop over his years working on the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong.
Brief side note: throughout this piece, I will repeatedly recommend: let Joe Cornish write and direct a Tintin sequel (should you just so happen to be in some position where this would be considered a reasonable request).
The power couple of Jackson and Spielberg allowed for Jackson’s childhood love of Tintin, and Spielberg’s American sensibilities, (and not really growing up with the comics) to create something extremely approachable and original. Everyone could enjoy the final product. And the added medium of motion capture opened up a world of possibilities for Spielberg to attempt to not only honor Hergé’s style, but also his flair for epic and exciting visuals. But it wasn’t without its hurdles for the director - who himself had never worked with the technology that seemed to be changing virtually everyday. Said Spielberg:
"The performance capture medium requires a little more projection of one’s feelings. The performance has to be not forced but extended a little stronger than normal. Not that subtleties don’t exactly read, but if you’re too internal nothing is going to appear, you need to demonstrate how you’re feeling instead of just feeling how you’re feeling."
(This is actually how Spielberg makes ALL of his movies pop: the over exaggeration of tone and feeling.)
Spielberg didn’t let the new medium change his style of shooting. Shots were set up and marked out just as you would on a live action set, and Spielberg programmed the camera placement and angles himself. There’s an unbelievable level of craft on display throughout Tintin’s 107 minute runtime, not only in the bombastic action-filled set pieces, but even more so in the quieter moments Wright and Cornish have created to flesh out these larger than life characters. Spielberg has a tendency to garnish his movies with big characters with big personalities, (think Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park or Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List) and he always finds a way to make these lavish personas make sense in the world he’s constructed, by grounding them with relatable personalities and struggles, whether it’s “daddy issues” or inferiority complexes. And he doesn’t let Tintin’s fabulous goings-ons completely overshadow the prime story he is trying to tell. As Spielberg put it, “The medium is not the message. The characters and the story are.”
Just let Joe Cornish write and direct a Tintin sequel, already.
When it comes to appreciating the movie separately from the amount of effort and skill that went into making it, there’s really nothing like it to compare to fairly. Aesthetically, the film firmly balances somewhere between live-action and animation, without too much of a foot in either world, breaking through the “uncanny valley” by embellishing its characters with cartoonish designs and having them react to a seemingly normal world as a comic book character would. There’s almost a subversive thrill that grabs you and won’t let go from the moment the action first starts up, and again, this is as much in the quieter moments of exposition and character development as it is in the larger, wild rollercoaster ride of stimulating eye-candy.
While the movie is inarguably titled, The Adventures of Tintin, this is very much Haddock’s story, the bumbling sea captain turned accident-prone ward to our deadline-free child journalist. Andy Serkis, who kicked digital character work’s ass as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, as well as the titular ape in King Kong, plays Haddock with so much verve and nuance it’s hard to remember that there’s a spindly chap in a body sized sock behind all of the mannerisms and catch-phrases. Haddock’s character is given the primary arc throughout the film’s story, changing in ways you would typically see in your main protagonist. Tintin himself acts more as a propellor for the adventure being told, especially in the film’s first quarter, before the arrival of Haddock. He then operates almost solely as a living rising action, meant only to sometimes, (literally) drag Haddock into the events that will reshape who he is and how he acts. I don’t think this is a failure of Tintin’s character as written, but a triumph of subverting what we expect from these types of big blockbuster animated films.
Of course, I’d never stop punching myself if I didn’t briefly bring up the Indiana Jones comparisons. While I’ll be doing separate pieces on those individual films (so exciting!) Tintin, or at least what Spielberg brings to his version of it, obviously owes so much to the rugged archaeologist with the hat and whip. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside (this is the way), the Indiana Jones franchise is not only a fantastic ride from Raiders to Last Crusade, but it really feels like Spielberg had an endless amount of concepts and tropes at the time, that he could utilize again and again, always producing a fantastic film, but never really repeating himself too much throughout the trilogy. Each installment of the Indiana Jones movies feels fresh and of its own contained story and themes, a technique lifted straight from one of its largest inspirations: the James Bond movies. I’ve spoken before on how one of Spielberg’s greatest gifts is his ability to redistribute aspects of other films and genres into whatever he has in front him, allowing the director to create a wholly original experience out of seemingly niche tropes. This is no different with Tintin. Spielberg’s cameras are let loose in a virtual world where gravity and logic no longer hinder The Beard; his energy and imagination are released into an open animated world with seemingly no limit or restrictions. The possibilities are endless, and he takes every advantage of them at every turn. The few “Spielberg Oners” are just mesmerizing, and a marvel to behold every time you experience them. Most specifically, the chase following Snowy, earlier on in the film, from the recently bullet-ridden front door of Tintin’s apartment foyer through the streets of the Belgian city. Once it starts, my brain has a good amount of trouble keeping up with every breaking pot falling from a balcony and all of the tires screeching, as our fluffy, cartoon canine narrowly escapes death. It’s a pleasure to see, and honestly, it gets better every time you experience it.
Let Joe Cornish write and direct a Tintin sequel.
That’s really what my thoughts on this whole movie boil down to: it’s an experience unlike any other. For every Indiana Jones movie, we’ve also got a Romancing the Stone or The Mummy (1999). Sure, you get a couple of Godfathers, but you’ve also got Goodfellas, and even a Casino, right around the corner. These are all capital-G Great movies, (yes, even The Mummy, you undeserving monster) but they are inevitably overshadowed by the influence they’ve had on the greater filmmaking world, especially in the realm of similar genre. But even with almost a full decade between now and the release of The Adventures of Tintin, we’ve yet to see a film live up to the promise the original gave us. No movie, animated or live action, has since propelled itself so effortlessly into a fantastically new world, one which works by its own rules and exhilarates audiences with its originality and scope. (Let. Joe. Cornish. Write. And. Direct. A. Tintin. Sequel. Please.)
The Adventures of Tintin is an amazing blip on Spielberg’s filmography radar, made even more obscure by the fact that it was released not only in the same year as another Spileberg film, (which he tends to do every now and then) but in the same WEEK. War Horse was released in theaters on December 25th, just 4 days after Tintin’s inexplicable Christmas release. (This is a summer movie if you’ve ever seen one, right?) In hindsight, you can see that the two film’s separate box offices seem to suggest that they cannibalized each other’s success, brandishing a mere opening weekend of $7 million and $9 million, respectively. While Tintin would go on to gross nearly $374 million compared to its budget of $135 million, the studios eventually gave up on following up with a sequel (set to be directed by Jackson this time around, with Spielberg swapping chairs to be a producer). And thus, the motion picture journeys of Tintin, Haddock and Snowy, were cut short. But the best part of the motion capture style used in the film is that these characters can be brought back at any time, looking and sounding just like they did in the original, only now with improved graphics design, and by a man named Joe, who would probably leap at the opportunity to quench his thirst for one more adventure.
On the next Movie Daddy, we’re gonna deck the halls with the solid, sorta-Christmas flick, Catch Me If You Can.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.