Monday, October 24, 2011

Make Believe

I don't think I have gone into a Blockbuster movie with as much good will towards the characters or the fictionanal universe being portrayed since I went to see J J Abrams' Star Trek reeboot in 2009, nostalgia stemming from a clear childhood recollection of the reruns of the 1960s TV series that used to be broadcast on BBC2 on a Friday night. My affection for Tintin, on the other hand, is derived from a more hazy childhood memory of the cartoon series that used to be broadcast on Channel Four, very early on Saturday mornings. In my, possibly inaccurate rememberences, the 1990s cartoon series about the bequiffed Belgian boy reporter and his dog called Snowy was a perfect mix of styles and tones, with just enough adventure to keep things exciting, just enough humour to keep things light, just enough mystery to draw you further into the narrative and just enough threat to keep the action exciting. It was perfectly pictched.

In my particular case, however, I probably have more of an affinity for the earlier films of Steven Spielberg. Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade was the first film I ever fell head over heels in love with, prompting my five year old self to hang off of the end of our sofa as if I were Indy, about to be thrown from the grill of a rapidly swerving truck. Films produced by Steven Spielberg, such as the Back to the Future series and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, also played an important part in forming my boyhood imagination. These films, which I still love, share the tone of playful seriousness I remember from the Tintin cartoon serial - 'we are not taking ourselves so seriously that we cannot laugh at our ourselves and our peculiar predicament, but, ultimately, the quest upon which we have embarked is important and the outcome matters, good should triumph over evil'.

So it was with hope that I noted Spielberg would helm a new Tintin project. But with some trepidation also. Isn't Tintin a bit of a retrograde step for a director who has made important films about heavyweight subject matter such as World War Two and the Holocaust? Shouldn't an artist of his stature and talent be working on films that are less to do with escapism and more to do with overcoming the inequities of a cruel and lonely universe?

Moreover, I was worried about whether or not a major Hollywood studio, or Spielberg himself, for that matter, would have sensitivity enough to faithfully recreate the old fashioned, romping, and distinctly Euopean sensibility of the orginal source material, on the silver screen. The early trailers were not particularly promising, I thought. But then I saw this and decided I would be going to watch the film on its opening day:

I need not have worried. Spielberg won over my inner cynic in moments and, I am happy to report, his first foray into animation is an undiluted pleasure. From opening titles to closing credits, I was captivated by The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, a sugary, caffeinated concotion, with sweet-waffles on the side, which leaves you hungry for more.

Few directors understand how to manipulate cinematic space as well as Steven Spielberg. The film is a masterclass in action movie directing and how to tell a story with a camera. Spielberg's use of 3D is excellent, his natural tendency to make use of both foreground and background suiting the medium perfectly. Almost every shot has multiple threads running through it, whether it is a visual gag, an easter egg or an important story point.

Furthemore, the freedom enabled by the digital animation and motion capture process means Spielberg's camera has never been more mobile. Panning around foggy Parisian streets, taking in perfect Lawrence of Arabia-inspired vistas, and rushing around bustling Morrocan souqs and market stalls, showing us sights we could never experience in any other way. No one else directs action with the same sense of kinetic energy without disrupting the viewer's sense of geography or geometry. It is a joy to behold Spielberg indulging in such unashamed showmanship, streching his legs, running out of breath, tripping over himself, as he rushes headlong at the boundary of his own talent. There is more visual ingenuity in Tintin than many a jobbing director manages in their entire career.

For a long stretch in the middle of the film I was thrilled by the spectacle, gripped by the peril and laughing at the slapstick, all at the same time. Tintin is inquisitive and full of daring-do, but by no means is he a conventional hero - how many American action films will you watch this year in which the hero announces with gusto, 'I know exactly the place I can find out!' before the film cuts to a scene in a library? Haddock is a gutsy trier who keeps getting it wrong and is full of pathos - surprisingly the film never shys away from the fact that he is a drunkard. Daniel Craig clearly relishes the chance to play a baddie, replete with villainous falcon sidekick. And Pegg and Frost are great fun as the identical English nincompoops, Thompson and Thompson, who, when they are not bickering like a pair of Star Wars robots, are falling over, but still managing to come out on top.

I am curious to know what my fellow Europeans will make of the film, and more especially what any Belgians will make of the film. There is a very strong British contingent, both in the film's cast - Jamie Bell as Tintin, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as Saccharine, Toby Jones as Aristides Silk, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the Thompson Twins - and behind the scenes - the film was co-written by Steven Moffat (Dr Who), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). Has the character and the style of the story been overly Angelcised? It is very hard for me to judge.

The one criticism I have is that John Williams does not give us a recognisable theme to walk out whistling. But that is a minor gripe. For pure spectable and popcorn-munching entertainment - the kind that only Hollywood makes - Tintin beats all comers. Bring on the next one! - Make Believe - Keyword description


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