Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Bodies, Unrest, and Motion

I’ve been waiting for a proper Tintin movie for pretty much my entire life. The first time I saw a movie on TV (any kind of movie) was a Turkish TV broadcast of Tintin and the Blue Oranges, a live-action Belgian attempt from the 1960s to bring Herge’s comic book characters to life. Even my six-year-old self at the time knew enough to call bullshit on that one. I remember that halfway through the film, the power went out in Ankara and plunged us into darkness, as if willed by my refusal to accept some random dude pretending to be Tintin.

There have been some 2-D animated attempts over the years. Those have stuck quite close to Herge’s original character designs, making them at least seem more authentic and acceptable. But a proper film should bring Tintin closer to the realm of reality, sort of the way superhero movies function; such films have to match our imagination’s capacity to place unreal things in the real world, otherwise they feel strangely impoverished. Which is a challenge: Tintin the boy journalist (he famously never grows up) is such a unique looking character, with his comically slender frame and that odd tuft of blond hair giving his head the distinct appearance of an orange onion; any live-action attempt is bound to fail. He does not actually look like any human who has ever lived.

Which of course makes it pretty much a stroke of brilliance to do Tintin as a motion capture computer-animated movie, because that medium seems to hover between the real and the imagined. The Tintin of Steven Spielberg’s film is the Tintin I’ve been waiting for – just physically present enough to let you believe he could be standing there, and yet just animated enough that he still looks like Tintin. In fact, Spielberg invests this whole world with such physical weight that it’s hard not to believe it’s all actually happening in front of us. 

But there are other challenges here, too. There was always a certain deadpan slapstick quality to Herge’s work; the static nature of the frame was the key to his visual inventiveness. His characters are so often suspended in mid-pratfall, or frozen in bewildered shock. You can’t really replicate that on film, and it wouldn’t make sense for a guy like Spielberg to try. So he goes in the opposite direction, which makes for an intriguing echo: Few artists used the physical stillness of the comic frame as well as Herge, and few filmmakers have used the movement of the film frame as well as Spielberg. So now the characters zip past us, constantly in motion. Maybe something has been lost in the process, but dammit if it doesn’t sometimes feel like Spielberg has liberated them as well.

Or rather, he’s Spielbergized them -- and that’s not a bad thing, not here. Yes, at times the film feels like Spielberg’s Greatest Hits. (Characters being wildly chased through Middle Eastern towns? Check. Someone slowly getting dragged towards an airplane propeller? Check. Pirates and boys who refuse to grow up? Check. ) But if there was ever a director from whom a Greatest Hits compilation would be more than welcome, it’s Spielberg.

Some may complain that the film refuses to slow down, that even Raiders of the Lost Ark had that great scene between Marion and Indy on the ship right before the final act. (“It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”) But Tintin stories don’t slow down, not really. There’s little room for reflection in this world, and certainly not for intimacy. Remember, Tintin is essentially a blank slate: He might be 14 or he might be 17. He’s a reporter who is never seen writing a single word. He’s a young boy who lives alone with his dog and can go and do whatever he wants. He has no family, no backstory, and almost no character quirks, or even traits. He certainly has no romantic life. (If you want to know what happens when Tintin discovers love, try Frederic Tuten’s masterfully strange novel Tintin in the New World: A Romance, a dreamlike reverie that imagines the intrepid boy journalist lovesick and lost among the characters of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.) Aside from his onion head, Tintin's blankness is his one essential quality.

No, this movie doesn’t stop, nor should it. What this movie does is move. Of course, there’s a strange perversity to the idea of elaborate tracking shots and stunts done in animation – since there’s no physical danger or challenge involved. But that actually highlights the nature of Spielberg’s achievement here. Despite the fact that we’re only just watching pixels, he makes us care; he takes our breath away with the death-defying derring-do of his characters. At one point, during an already-justly-celebrated, eye-popping single-shot chase scene through a village, Spielberg keeps the perspective ever-changing; the foreground becomes background and vice-versa, helping to plunge us headlong into a dizzying chaos that has been expertly choreographed and realized. It’s a crazy scene. A moped breaks in half, then breaks even further, though each piece seems to still go in its own direction; a dog and a bird fight over a piece of parchment in mid-air, flying through windows while dodging humans and clotheslines and all sorts of other things; someone inadvertently rappels off a building hanging onto a single tire, which then further breaks up into nothing in their hands; a flood pushes an entire hotel down a street, its gravity somehow commandeering a tank along the way, whose gun snags one of our heroes and leaves him hanging and helpless amid the frenzy of the chase. And somewhere along the way, I realize I’m six again, and I never ever want it to end. 


  1. I think you're being far too kind to this thing. Far from liberating, Spielberg's busy style felt claustrophobic (to me) compared with the airy feel of the comics. "Tintin stories don’t slow down, not really," yet Herge was terrific at varying the rhythm, often using comedy. Yes, there are chases in Herge, but there's always more going on. It was only in my late teens that I realised the excellent chase at the climax of "The Calculus Affair" was really a comment on the shoddy infrastructure of Eastern Bloc regimes (I spent my childhood being annoyed that Tintin and Haddock got 'lucky' when their pursuers' guns blew up, landmines turned out to be duds, etc). Spielberg missed quite a few tricks if all he thinks about is bodies in motion.

    Oh, and this:

    "But if there was ever a director from whom a Greatest Hits compilation would be more than welcome, it’s Spielberg."

    I do not concur. Spielberg's problem (for me) has always been that his highs are too high. Too many cop cars pursuing in "Sugarland Express", too many Jap pilots saluting in "Empire of the Sun", etc. If ever a director's Greatest Hits compilation would be over-rich to the point of being sick-making, that would be Spielberg's in my opinion. Like Mr. Pink, the last fuckin' thing he needs is another cup of coffee.

  2. It's entirely possible that Spielberg's work speaks to me more than he does to you. I don't know that I would want him to completely subsume his style to Herge's work. (Spielberg, when I think about it, was probably as much a factor in part of my childhood as Tintin was.) So what I'm responding to in the movie is its ability to combine the two sensibilities, rather than its ability to purely reflect one or the other. But point taken on some of the political nuances.

  3. I found this movie irresistably exhilerating, too, and I only just recently became a fan of Herge. But I think you're right that Spielberg has given Herge fans what they've been waiting for it. It has the energy, the slapstick, the colorful animation -- everything. Nice point about Tintin's essential "blankness", too; that what makes him a protagonist to root for, even if Spielberg seems more concerned with Haddock's story.

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