Do you remember adventure? Not action, but adventure. Adventures are more about journeys than explosions, driven by curiosity rather than vengeance or greed. Adventure speaks to a part of us deeper than visceral thrills, a primal need to test our own boundaries, to follow the breadcrumbs, to answer questions. Action is simply what happens along the way, but somewhere in the 1980s Hollywood forgot that, and turned its attention to the stunts and setpieces, forgetting the spirit that made them so thrilling.
Steven Spielberg clearly remembers adventure, despite the limp Kingdom of the Crystal Skull suggesting otherwise. In adapting Belgian illustrator Herge’s globe-trotting comic strip into a mo-capped 3D CGI movie, the director has tapped back into the spirit of swashbuckling matinee escapism that fuelled the original Indiana Jones movies. The end result may not be better than Raiders of the Lost Ark (what is?) but it’s easily a match for Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade. In a movie landscape dominated by noise and incoherence, that’s more than enough.
The Adventures of Tintin shows Spielberg getting back in touch with the simply joys of “just because” storytelling. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and one that unbalances almost all modern blockbusters. Things happen in Tintin just because it’s an adventure story, but it never feels like the plot is being glib or cavalier. It simply takes place within a world built around genre, where it’s perfectly natural for a pistol-packing, two-fisted teenaged redheaded reporter from Belgium to chase a model of an old man o’ war galleon across the planet, accompanied only by his tenacious dog Snowy and an alcoholic old sea captain called Haddock.
There’s precious little exposition in the film. It hits the ground running, with Tintin discovering a model of the Unicorn at an open air market, and from that point on it rattles along, secure in the knowledge that everything we need to know can be explained on the way. The movie is almost half over by the time we, and Tintin, discover why the Unicorn is so important but Spielberg understands that explanation can be the kiss of death for adventure.
Tintin follows the Unicorn because it’s a story, and he’s a reporter. He doesn’t have a character arc so much as a character traits, and plucky determination sits at the top of that heap. That’s justification enough for an adventure story, and allowing the camera to pan across framed newspaper headlines covering our hero’s previous exploits sets everything up beautifully. It’s not an origin story, and there are no sequences dedicated to explaining why Tintin wears his iconic knee length plus-four trousers. We don’t get to see how he and Snowy came together. It doesn’t matter. We do get to see how he first met Captain Haddock, his boozy best friend, but that’s because Haddock is integral to the secret of the Unicorn. Even then, their partnership is never laboriously spelled out. Like all the great adventure stories, characters get caught up in the snowballing plot and are carried along for the ride without question.
Yet despite the familiarity of the genre, The Adventures of Tintin finds Spielberg outside of his comfort zone in other ways. It’s his first animated movie and his first movie in 3D. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t let this impact the way he shoots. Shots are framed with the sort of classically inspired clarity and grace he introduced to the popcorn genres way back when, and the 3D is used sparingly, adding subtle depth to this beguiling world rather than overwhelming the viewer with bombast during the many chases, fights and narrow escapes.
What CG does allow Spielberg to do is free up his camera from the restrictions of the real world. He’s enough of a traditionalist to resist the urge to untether it completely, and he never sends it swooping through objects or cutting to impossible angles, but it brings a flow and pace to the action that simply couldn’t be matched in the 1980s with dolly tracks and zoom lenses. One chase sequence, late in the film, is probably the most ambitiously staged action scene Spielberg has directed, a non-stop scramble between the good guys and bad guys to keep hold of three vital clues. The chase transitions from mountain roads to a Middle Eastern town, with motorbikes, tanks, zip-lines, cross-dressing and falconry all stirred into the mix. In another bravura sequence, Spielberg stages an Errol Flynn sword fight using dockside cranes as sabres.
But there are quieter shows of strength as well, with some stunning match cuts, as raging seas dissolve into puddles on the street and desert dunes transform into crashing waves. Spielberg hasn’t had this much fun on-screen in years, even finding time for an affectionate nod to Jaws and a tribute to Harryhausen in the background. Villains lurk in interesting corners of the frame, details are picked out with simple dexterity and Spielberg plays in his old toybox with infectious glee. The opening credits, in particular, are absolutely wonderful.
CG also enables the film to inhabit a visual realm somewhere between photo-reality (there are some astonishing textures on display) and the heightened cartoon style of Herge’s original drawings. To truly realise these characters in live action would require Dick Tracy levels of make-up. Despite the occasional dead-eyed moment, CG allows distinctive characters like Haddock to be themselves, direct from the page, rather than subsumed within any particular actor.
The 3D is less essential, so those who aren’t taken with the format can easily opt for a 2D screening without missing anything vital. The movie is strong enough to stand without the added dimension, but if we must have 3D movies this is how they should be done.
What is perhaps most refreshing about The Adventures of Tintin is that it finds Spielberg at his most collaborative. There are some old sparring partners on hand – Janusz Kaminski’s delicate cinematography ensures the movie feels real even though it isn’t, while John Williams supplies his most spritely and energetic score in years – but an extra special tip of the hat must go to the three British screenwriters.
Edgar “Hot Fuzz” Wright, Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish and Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat all get Tintin with the same innate understanding that Spielberg has, and they’ve turned in a screenplay that feels timeless, a rollercoaster ride that gives the audience time to look around and orientate themselves before plunging them into another giddy action sequence. Wright’s love of watertight structure is clearly in evidence, as are Cornish’s dry comedic sensibilities, while Moffat’s ability to segue from laughs to gasps helps to bridge the tonal shifts of the tale. It’s a triumvirate of geek bliss.
This is a period movie that never announces itself as such. The thrills come from motorbikes, seaplanes, fist fights, sword duels and foot chases. Messages are sent by morse code, not text message. Secret locations are found using maps and globes, not GPS tracking. Technology has killed off the adventure genre, making treasure hunts and ancient riddles something to be solved with apps and Google searches, yet despite ditching all aspects of the modern world the film never feels old-fashioned or Luddite in its outlook. True adventure has no expiration date.
Jamie Bell does great work as Tintin himself, perhaps the most thankless role in the movie. He has to be relentlessly upbeat and unfailingly honest, the sort of character who’ll exclaim “Goodness me!” rather than “Woah!”, and keep chasing a model ship even when his life is in danger, purely because he can’t bear to let a mystery slip through his fingers. Such a character could easily be precocious, but Bell manages to make him relatable. Tintin may lack Indy’s rogue nature, but they’re definitely kindred spirits.
Andy Serkis pretty much steals the show as Haddock – and how great is it that a major family movie has an alcoholic hero whose drunkeness is not only acknowledged but is the source of both jokes and plot developments? Serkis plays him as a broad Scot and takes advantage of the fact that Haddock is the one character with what resembles emotional development over the course of the story. There are no momentum-halting sob stories, but we see how Tintin’s exuberance and self-belief help to inspire this sozzled old sea dog to live up to his ancestors. It’s just enough depth to fill in the margins of the tale.
They’re both well supported by an effectively nasty villain voiced by Daniel Craig. As well as adventure, danger is something that’s been bled out of family movies in recent years, but it’s back on the menu here. The bad guys want to kill Tintin and this isn’t sugar coated in any way. There’s not much blood or death in the film (although there is a shooting that is surprisingly grim for a modern PG) but the stakes are clearly illustrated and we’re left in no doubt that the villains mean business. Finally, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost posh it up as Thompson and Thomson, the bumbling Interpol agents in bowler hats who provide the more slapstick comic relief moments. They share at least one great scene, with a pickpocket voiced by Toby Jones, which is pure verbal farce.
All these elements, delightful on their own, combine to create a movie that is endearingly shameless in its desire to entertain. It’s a joyous movie, so utterly in love with its own matinee world that you can’t help but be sucked in. Two parts Indiana Jones to one part Buster Keaton, it proves once and for all that you can construct a breathless all-ages rollercoaster without abandoning such quaint concepts as character, wit and clarity of purpose. For adult viewers, it’s a heartfelt validation of the enduring appeal of a cracking yarn told well. But for younger viewers, the ones weaned on the toothless inoffensive entertainments of the 21st century? It’ll be a revelation.