Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXII: Blistering barnacles!


Spielberg teams up with Peter Jackson for a throwback adventure into the past, rendered with all the tools of the future, and the film they made together is truly something to behold.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish (based on the comics by Herge)
With Jamie Bell (Tintin), Andy Serkis (Capt. Haddock), Nick Frost (Thompson), Simon Pegg (Thompson), Toby Jones (Mr. Silk), and Daniel Craig (Sakharine)

Spoiler alert: moderate

We left off last time with a remark that it was nothing short of surprising that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turned out to be as much goofy-ass fun as it was, considering that Steven Spielberg, the man who made it, had spent the previous decade of his career under the misapprehension that even the frothiest actioner needed to be grounded in a dour interrogation of society, or it just wasn't worthwhile.  (But then, the sentiment had served him well enough to produce not one but two bona fide masterpieces, so it's a little disingenuous to actually call it a mistake.)  Anyway, it's as clear as any transparent cranium just how much of a re-education in the art of dumbassed action Indy 4 must have been; for the director quickly applied all the lessons he'd re-learned in 2008 to his very next film.  And this film, of course, was Spielberg's long-nurtured adaptation of the Herge comics, which bore the title The Adventures of Tintin in America, and the rather more descriptive title The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in Europe, and whichafter a full thirty years of developmentat long last saw the light of day in the winter of 2011.

Tintin is an impressive feat for a director whose films had always pursued some kind of thematic profundity, even when they were about a guy driving a car around the desert.  No, by the end of its very first scene (if not its opening credits!) Tintin has already announced itself as the single purest expression of silly fun in a Spielberg film since 1989's The Last Crusade, with which Tintin would (at first blush) seem to have a great deal in common.  However, the real truth is that Tintin isn't like anything else in the whole Spielberg canon.

Partly, this is because it's Spielberg's only cartoon: Spielberg the Mogul had always had an interest in animation, as Amblin Entertainment's partnership with Don Bluth in the 1980s demonstrated (and as DreamWorks' heavy push into Disney territory during the late 1990s confirmed).  Tintin came to Spielberg's attention before any of that, though; indeed, the project can be traced back all the way to 1981, when Spielberg became aware of the comic book series after critics drew the connections between it and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  To make a long story short, Spielberg became a fan of Herge; Herge became a fan of Spielberg; and thus the director got the rights to make a Tintin movie, then got sidetracked, then lost the rights, and finally got them backall the while conceiving of the prospective film as "Indiana Jones for kids" (what the heck was Indiana Jones, then, Steven?), and wavering between an animated adaptation and a live-action one.

In the end, the one who made the case for the motion-capture animation ultimately used wasn't Spielberg, but Peter Jackson, who came aboard as producer and quasi-director (Jackson was heavily involved in this film's creation).  Spielberg had asked Jackson if his Weta Digital CGI house could make a computer-generated rendition of Tintin's canine companion, Snowy; and Jackson, grossly exceeding the parameters of Spielberg's innocent query, made a whole demo reel with his favorite robot, Andy Serkis, to show what a full-on mo-cap Tintin might look like.  Spielberg, apparently overawed, accepted Jackson's suggestion.  The result is a film that almost certainly made Spielberg's pal Robert Zemeckis weep the bitterest tears possible (and maybe even throw up in his own mouth a little), because Zemeckis had spent the preceding eleven years flogging the dead eyes of mo-cap animation without any real success, and to increasingly grotesque ends.  (Zemeckis' experiment finally collapsed with the world-historical failure of Mars Needs Moms.)  But Spielberg, that lucky bastard, got it right on his very first try.  Still, perhaps that's no real surprise: Jackson had semi-perfected the technology alongside Serkis, with LotR and King Kongand, of course,  Spielberg had Zemeckis' mistakes to learn from.  Even so, Zemeckis had to have greeted Tintin with some inner ambivalence, when it turned out that feature-length motion-cap could make a great movie.  It merely needed somebody else at the digital controls.

Anyway, the other thing that marks Tintin out as so unlike practically everything else Spielberg had made before is its complete indifference to any human emotion beyond dumb cartoon humor and (more importantly) the audience's anticipated gee-whiz reaction to Weta Digital's legitimately bitchin' technology.  That's why any attempt to compare it to the Indiana Jones franchise is bound to come up with a lot more contrasts than connections.   Let me put it this way: the Indy movies have Indiana Jones, one of the greatest fictional characters ever conceived.  Tintin, on the other hand, has Tintin.

So you see my point.

And if Tintin is more than a genre cutout in Herge's books (which I've never read), that's certainly not translated into Tintin's movie.  So you won't find anything like Harrison Ford's fleshy paragon of failure-prone action and distracted intellectualism; instead, there is only the teenaged journalist-adventurer motion-captured by Jamie Bell, andirrespective of the actor's solid vocal performanceTintin is a largely-soulless cypher.  He's not even the most important moving part within the giant Rube Goldberg machine that Tintin was designed to be.  Yet what an enjoyable Rube Goldberg machine it is!

We begin at a street fair in Brussels, and here we meet our hero, who's having his caricature drawnand if I had ever read the comics, and had any lingering affection for their protagonist, I think I'd probably weep a little at how Goddamned cute Tintin's introduction is.  But then a cool model ship catches the lad's eyea replica of the H.M.S. Unicornand Tintin purchases it, just in time to find himself caught between two other potential buyers, and what shapes up to be an ultra-generic mystery that, nevertheless, has the good fortune to be visualized by Steven Spielberg.  When one of Tintin's pursuers winds up gunned down on his doorstep, and his flat gets trashed by burglars, the valiant boy reporter goes into full Hardy mode, resolving to get to the bottom of all this mess.  In the meantime, Tintin becomes the victim of a pickpocket, who figures very prominently into the plot, even though he probably shouldn't.

Despite this setback, soon Tintin (and his faithful dog sidekick/deuteragonist Snowy) find themselves aboard the Karaboudjan, a ship nominally run by the drunken Capt. Haddock, but recently commandeered by Tintin's enemy, the villainously elegant Sakharine, "the sour-faced man with the sugary name," as he's sometimes called by this movie's goofy screenwriters.  Tintin and Snowy release Haddocklearning, in the process, that the foul sot is a descendant of the captain of the Unicornand the trio heads to Morroco, racing against Sakharine to find the Unicorn's treasure, and thereby snatch Haddock's birthright right out from under their persecutor's extraordinarily pointy nose.

Tintin never really finds its footing until the exact moment that Haddock enters the picture.  Haddock is portrayed by Serkis, and Serkis is one of the greatest actors of our age, although you won't necessarily want to call Haddock a great performance, at least not when the character is almost solely the vehicle for some of the oldest-school drunkard humor you'll find, well, anywhereeven in movies from the 1930s, when that kind of thing was still in vogue.  It's pushed to a degree that is altogether remarkable (maybe even kind of insane), and it starts to wear very thin very quickly, but it keeps going, and going, until, finally, it actually becomes funny again.

There is no reason that the word "sober" ought to be hilarious, but Serkis manages just that, reading the word much as you might your father's name, assuming, anyway, that you'd just found your father's name on a sex offender registry.

Hell, if nothing else, Tintin is probably the only movie where a man belches into the gas tank of a seaplane in an attempt to give it a couple more miles' worth of fuel, but only winds up setting the engine on fire with his alcoholic breath.  (There are new things under the sun, after all.)  So, it's good that Haddock is amusing enough on his own.  But much more importantly, he fills a void that direly needed to be filled, and Tintin, who is in no sense a compelling protagonist in his own right, turns out to be a pretty great foil for the antics of a delirious moron instead.

All this low cartoon comedyso low it's subterranean, in factkeeps the mood suitably light and off-kilter.  (Tintin is, perhaps, what Hook always wanted to be.)  But the real justification for Tintin's expensive and dubious mo-cap animation is Spielberg's filmmaking, which takes liberties that the director surely never would have in live-action.  The camerawork is dizzyingalmost literally!and, when combined with Tintin's breathless pace and bizarro animated match-fades, there's just no need for "solid characters" or "actual good comedy."  It's a gorgeous piece of animation, and a dazzlingly fun time, without those things.  There is, on the other hand, an oddness to the interaction between objectsSpielberg does some very, very strange things to time in Tintinbut once you get used to the idiosyncrasies, it's gold.

Yet the genius behind it all only begins to make his presence felt as the mystery deepensespecially when Haddock's alcohol-poisoned mind begins to return.  (You see, the secret of the Unicorn is only a secret because Haddock has forgotten it after a few thousand too many drinks.)  The centerpiece of the whole film, as well as its claim to anything like true greatness, is the stunning cross-cut flashback that bounces back and forth between Haddock's maddened recollections of his ancestor's derring-do and Spielberg's depiction of the mightiest pirate action this side of Douglas Fairbanks.  It makes me want to see Spielberg do a pirate cartoon, something that I never would have even guessed at before.  I'm not sure there's anything in the whole world like watching Tintin's pair of cartoon captains have their swordfight, while a flaming trail of gunpowder dodges its way toward their ship's magazine; and in between Michael Kahn's completely unhinged cutting scheme, and Spielberg's splendid staging, I was left a giddy, gibbering wreck.  Their transitions flow like liquid mercury, and I loved it.

In fact, there's not much to actively dislike about Tintin: the biggest flaw must be Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's twinned pair of Interpol agents, whose unwelcome intrusions into the story intermittently put a halt to the breakneck momentum of the thing, while offering only the cold comfort of the film's absolute worst jokes, and considering the whole thing is already intentionally full of "the worst jokes," then the rotten ones that don't work must stink indeed.  (Their design is abysmal, too; and since Tintin does not have uniformly good character design in the first place, with only Tintin and Sakharine standing out as particularly well-crafted cartoons, and since mo-cap has a reputation for being uncanny and gross, you can perhaps guess how upsetting these two beasts in bowler hats might be.)  Tintin's (short) list of bad also includes the screenplay's decision to lean far too heavily on made-up faux-contemporary expletives; it's charming for a long while, until you get to an otherwise-immaculate action sequence which, unfortunately, sullies itself by forcing Serkis to utter a heap of ill-judged epithets all at once.  Oh, and I could've lived without a jarringly anachronistic reference to the "Third World" in this movie that's set in the 1930s.

Finally, there is the issue of the final battle.  As an action setpiece, it's honestly amazingit manifests as a duel between stevedore cranes, and is therefore yet one more example of how wonderfully Tintin exploits its own visual possibilities.  It doesn't much feel like a climax, however.  Yet, for better or worse, it is the end, even as the movie just kind of keeps chugging along and tying things up.  Now, this epilogue is hardly unenjoyable; but it is unaccountably gentle, in a way that feels directly at odds with all the urgent sprinting leading up to it.

No matter!  The Adventures of Tintin is, in its way, an utterly mechanical thingheartless in way that no Speilberg film had been before, and never would be again.  And yet, the irony of Tintin is that, for all its coldness, it's also the last truly magnificent movie Spielberg made.  I adore it almost completely.

(But seriously: poor Bob.)

Score:  9/10

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