Many questioned director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson’s decision to render Hergé’s classic series of comic-book Boy’s Own-style adventures in performance-capture animation. But it’s hard to imagine that either live action or traditional animation would have been capable of producing the thrilling blend of high drama, physical authenticity and visual invention found here. Ending a three-year hiatus following his disappointing ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, ‘Tintin’ finds a re-energised Spielberg atoning for that misstep with a film which, in both its rip-roaring, globe-trotting narrative and its visceral dedication to pure white-knuckle thrills, is the true successor to his original ‘Indy’ trilogy.
We first meet our ageless hero sitting for an artist’s portrait in the market square of his unspecified home town (in the first in a long series of witty, self-reflective sight gags, the caricature looks just like a Hergé drawing). Tintin’s eye is caught by a junk stall and a model ship on display. This is the Unicorn – a sixteenth-century three-masted galleon which went down with all hands and a belly full of booty. The hunt for this treasure will send Tintin, his faithful dog Snowy and a mounting cadre of supporting players on a voyage across oceans and deserts, by ship, plane, jeep, motorbike and, perhaps most memorably, haulage crane.
Sticking to Hergé’s idea of Tintin as a relatively passive, colourless hero surrounded by outlandish archetypes, Spielberg and a crack team of British comedy writers – Joe Cornish, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat – fill the screen with wonderfully bizarre and memorable characters, chiefly the inimitable Captain Haddock, a floundering, whisky-breathed soak gloriously realised by Andy Serkis. And while this means a few characters get overlooked – we never get a handle on Daniel Craig’s moustache-twirlingly villainous Sakharine, for instance – it does make for a notable absence of dull moments.
Visually, the film is astounding, as Spielberg takes full advantage of the freedom of his chosen medium. A mid-film flashback sequence, as Haddock recounts the sinking of the Unicorn, must rank as one of the director’s finest set-pieces, a dizzying mish-mash of impossible tracking shots, manic action and some of the most inventive scene transitions ever devised. This level of visual intensity can become bewildering – a later Moroccan chase sequence pushes things too far, resulting in sheer confusion – but for the most part, it’s exhilarating.
So, while it may lack the depth and humanity of masterpieces like ‘Jaws’ and ‘ET’, ‘Tintin’ is without doubt the finest example of Spielberg’s family-friendly fun side since ‘Jurassic Park’. It’s also the most creative, enjoyable and invigorating blockbuster of the year.