TINTIN and the Continuing Growth of Steven Spielberg

Sam Strange would like to take a moment to get all serious with you.

Many will proclaim (or already have proclaimed) that Tintin is the film which finally brought Steven Spielberg back to his Raiders of the Lost Ark roots. It’s sort of a tempting statement to make. For one, it just sounds good as a recommendation. But more than that, Tintin finds the director fully and effectively engaging his action-adventure muscles for the first time in a long while. Even if people call it his best adventure film since Jurassic Park, that’s still an eighteen year gap, and Jurassic Park doesn’t really share the same DNA with Tintin the way the better Indiana Jones films do.

The problem with this view, enthusiastic as it may arrive, is that it mistakenly infers Tintin was made by a Spielberg who’s looking backward, reclaiming something forgotten or lost. Pushing the view only reinforces the warped idea that there are two Spielbergs, the young, wild one who died with Jurassic Park and the older, deeper and complex Spielberg born with Schindler’s List.

I probably subscribed to this idea as much as anyone. Despite really admiring the director’s later films, the last Indiana Jones film seemed to spell out that he couldn’t ever go home again. But it turns out that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was Spielberg looking back and trying to recreate, while Tintin is the director at full capacity, looking only forward with a childlike glee that is completely organic and contagious.

The idea that Tintin was made by a 64 year old is truly difficult to fathom. The film is so joyous and inventive in its execution that it just doesn’t seem possible. If this were some new hotshot director’s third or fourth film we’d be amazed at his or her talents. If Robert Zemekis made it, we’d all gossip about who ghost-directed the action sequences. There’s a pirate battle in this film that puts Gore Verbinski to shame. The only clue that Tintin was directed by a veteran is that the visual information is clear and the editing comprehensible.

And despite all the obvious similarities to Indiana Jones, Tintin is very much its own thing. It’s Spielberg’s funniest film and possibly his lightest as well, completely devoid of the horror touches present his older films. Tintin‘s animated world is a bright place where life and death stakes aren’t nearly as pressing as getting the next piece of the puzzle. As a result, the film is fun but rarely what we’ve come to identify as awesome. It’s a kid’s film in every possible way the Star Wars Prequels failed to be kid’s films.

The film also lacks that central iconic performance Indiana Jones had. Instead, Tintin wisely revolves its action around three heroes who add up to more than the sum of their parts. The film’s quiet scenes never feel slow because one character is always picking up another’s narratively necessary slack. When Haddock is sad, Tintin is happy. If Tintin is investigating, Snowy is getting into mischief. And when all three work together it’s joyous and feels just right.

The beauty of Tintin, and the reason my rhetoric regarding it comes so close to hyperbole, is more about Spielberg than Tintin itself. At the end of the day, Tintin is just a movie. But with it, Spielberg shows us a new thing he can do better than pretty much anyone else. It’s inspiring to see and important to recognize. As far as history is concerned, the only person Spielberg can compete with at this point is himself, and he’s still trying to win.