Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Animation Nation

Well, hey, if Martin Scorcese can make an excellent family film on his first go around, who's to say that Steven Spielberg can't make an equally great animated film in his first attempt? December has proven to be a big name for the iconic director, whose live-action War Horse has already been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Picture and will surely be have been considered when the Academy Award nominations roll around. Beyond that, he released his first animated film (alongside another epic filmmaker, Peter Jackson) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which has received a Best Animated Film nomination and will likely be the pick for what has become the Academy's annual nomination of an animated feature to the Best Picture category. Based on the classic comic book series by Belgian artist George Remi (or as he's more popularly known, Herge), Spielberg has owned the rights to make Tintin since shortly after Remi's death in 1983. For one reason or another - whether due to unacceptable scripts or other responsibilities - Tintin did not make it to the big screen, and we would never see a live-action version of this international sensation in movie theaters. Enter Peter Jackson, who had used motion capture technology in creating amazingly lifelike nonhuman characters for films King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Suggesting that Tintin could be made into an animated film using motion capture equipment, he and Spielberg set out to do something never before accomplished, and for the most part they got it right.

A Library? Don't you know all good adventures start in a tavern??
When renowned Belgian reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchases a beautiful three-masted ship model at an outdoor market, he doesn't think anything of it. He doesn't know that simply purchasing  the ship may present him with the story of a lifetime. He certainly doesn't expect that it will set him on a globetrotting mission to uncover the secrets of a lost treasure, restore the legacy of a cursed family tree, and suffer through disasters on land, sea, and air to survive by the skin of his teeth every time. Escorted and aided everywhere by his white fox terrier Snowy and new friend Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), Tintin is in a race against time to find a sunken treasure before criminal mastermind Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig) can steal it to fund his nefarious deeds.

Yes! Saved from a life of glorious adventure!
The stills I've compiled don't do enough to show how brilliantly animated this film is. The Adventures of Tintin possesses the most realistic depictions of human characters I've ever seen in a non-live action film, and anyone who's seen what bad human characters look like know how big a deal that is. Never has Uncanny Valley been so conspicuously absent, and several scenes are so realistic they look as if they were shot with live actors instead of their digital counterparts. This is especially true of the main character, whose likeness to actor Jaime Bell helps connect him to the viewers, but who also must be believable in every scene. And since he's in just about EVERY scene there is... well, what's important is that the animation not only doesn't detract from the adventurous aspect of the film, it actually assists in making it more engaging to the audience. In fact, I'd say that should Spielberg become interested in doing a line of films in this vein, it would make for a natural progression of the Indiana Jones series, which shares many similarities with his variation of Tintin. After all, there's nothing that could cleanse the palette of Crystal Skull better than to reboot the franchise with computer animation, in my opinion.

No, really! I always do the crossword in the blood of my enemies!
Another step in the right direction is the breadth of characters made open to us, thanks especially to Spielberg's faithfulness to the source material. Though we learn little about Tintin himself (a byproduct of Herge, who developed all his secondary characters more than he did his hero), his visual demeanor and Jamie Bell's reading of the role make him instantly likable, as Bell gives Tintin a youthful exuberance in which you can't help but get caught. Also a lot of fun is Andy Serkis as Tintin's friend Haddock, an alcoholic and self-proclaimed failure who rediscovers his sense of adventure and self-respect of the course of the film. Playing the role of crowd favorite, it's the most fun I've had seeing a Serkis performance since he played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and even that thirty seconds of awesome that was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Daniel Craig rises above his so-so no-Bond 2011 with his best performance of the year, and that's mainly because it's the only one in which you're not sure it's him until the final credits. As the film's main villain, Craig comes off as devious, cruel and completely lacking in compassion, which is exactly what was needed. A nice addition to the cast are the comedic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thomson and Thompson (yes, two different spellings) as identical policemen who are allies with Tintin. While not deeply ingrained to the main story, their sporadic appearances do provide quite a bit of levity to the story, which occasionally needs it when gunfire is present at regular intervals. Finally, one of the film's better roles might be for a non-speaking part, as Spielberg takes his love of furry animals to the ultimate level with the rendering of Snowy, who is as fleshed out a character as can be, despite the dubious distinction of walking on four feet.

Aye, he's an angry Scotsman

If there's one problem with Tintin, it's that it's directed by, well, Steven Spielberg. Don't get me wrong; in his early years, Spielberg was a genius director for whom the sky was the limit. However, he hit that sky more than a decade ago, and these days seems to settle his business quickly and efficiently, resulting in some underwhelming and overrated titles that survive mainly due to his name and the talent he attracts to his side. One major problem with his work is that the message of the film or even a single scene is placed out there in the open, and he can't help but constantly point to it and figuratively say "See? See? Aren't I clever?" It's less present in Tintin, but still present a bit too often; Spielberg must have heard the moviemaking manta "show, don't tell", but if he has it has no presence in his work, with characters espousing plot devices and any important information instead of letting us work it out for ourselves. That's what makes him such a mediocre (and ironically, popular) director; his films these days rarely make you actually think, allowing you to turn off your brain and not ponder what you see or hear. Most people like that, but as a regular film-goer, I prefer subtlety and intelligence to rule the day.

Hey, don't you know it's impolite to eavesdrop??
Despite this, The Adventures of Tintin is an exciting, fun film for the whole family that is a modern miracle in human engineering. I was not bored one moment throughout the film, and while some quiet moments would have been welcomed, I can't help but feel this is a more trivial quibble than a real critique. Some moments, such as an amazing chase through the streets of Bagghar, Morocco, count among the greatest feats of cinema in 2011, and it's that visual spectacle alongside some real human heart that rates this title so highly in my eyes. It's no Arthur Christmas in terms of overall film quality, but Tintin is still one of the best animated films I've seen recent years, and it's lack of inclusion in the Top 10 is by no means meant as a snub. A very good film that you should see in the theater, this is by far my favorite Spielberg film this decade. With an attempt to try something different on your part, it could be yours too.

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