A boy reporter and his dog find mystery and adventure, all thanks to a model ship, in The Adventures of Tintin, an animated Steven Spielberg movie that is clearly supposed to be filled with excitement and wonder.
“Supposed to” being the key words in that sentence.
Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell) is a young reporter living in what seems like early 20th-century London and filling the front pages of his newspaper with tales of capturing criminals and solving great mysteries, Scooby Doo-style. Though said newspaper is not the Mom Herald published sporadically on the home office printer, Tintin appears to be about 9 years old. But he lives by himself and works for a living so I suppose he’s, er, older. He is accompanied on his travels by Snowy, his much smarter (though non-verbal) dog. The pair are together in the marketplace when Tintin spots a meticulously crafted model ship and buys it. Immediately, two other men — an American and a man who we eventually learn is Ivanovich Sakharine (voice of Daniel Craig) — appear to attempt to buy the ship from him. It will bring you nothing but trouble, the American warns. But Tintin knows a good mystery when he hears it. He refuses to sell the ship and heads to his house. But a wacky misadventure with a cat leads to a collision between floor and ship. Though Snowy tries to alert him, Tintin does not notice that something rolls out of the ship and he heads out to follow up on a story about a pickpocket. When he returns, the ship is missing and he sets out to find it and eventually gets himself abducted by Sakharine, who puts him on a ship headed for points unknown. (Snowy also sneaks on board.)
Onboard, Tintin meets Captain Haddock (voice of Andy Serkis), who is also being held captive. Tintin tries to get the rummy Haddock to sober up enough to figure out what Sakharine wants with them and the boats. Escapes and chases lead Tintin and Haddock to the desert, where they seek the answer to the mystery which seems to have some connection to Haddock’s ancestors and an encounter his great-so-and-so, Sir Francis Haddock (also Serkis), had with the pirate Red Rackham (also Craig).
That’s really just a slice of the plot — there’s more: stuff about Haddock’s drinking problem, Tintin’s ambition to get the story, that pickpocket and the detectives chasing him ... other stuff I’ve forgotten. There are a lot of details in this story and a lot of them are delivered during scenes of Tintin thinking his way through the puzzle, pondering aloud exposition-filled possibilities for how the mystery of the Unicorn (the name of the ship the model was based on) will unravel. I can see how one might think exposition would be more exciting if delivered by a plucky cartoon boy and a comically boozy ship captain. It isn’t, though.
Here’s what Tintin gets right: the mystery adventure with pirates and thieves and stuff. It feels very Encyclopedia Brown, very Nancy Drew (without the girls), very, well, Scooby Doo and the gang. There’s an old-fashioned quality to the story that is successful more often than it isn’t and could unfold into a world-traveling romp.
Visually, The Adventures of Tintin also sort of works. This particular form of animation, similar to but better than that of The Polar Express, might not make for the most natural- or exciting-looking people but it does a good job of making locations — the ocean, the sands of the desert, a gloomy dock — look interesting. Some of the action sequences really do flow nicely, with the controlled chaos of a chase scene playing out in a Moroccan town, for example.
The problem with Tintin is that there’s nothing else to the action. I found myself not perched on the edge of my seat, but a little bored and waiting for the next scene, even during the most action-heavy chase or fight. Even in 3-D, Tintin feels flat — I can see the events on the screen but I have no sense of their having any depth. Or, to put it more directly: I don’t feel anything for these characters. Tintin is a dull, scoldy young lad. He seems less fleshed out here in a movie about his travels than your average Dilbert character does in a four panel strip. I never really understand his motives for taking part in this adventure (yes, he’s a reporter, but how many editors are accepting stories based on model ships?). Meanwhile, the more interesting Haddock is kind of a doofus and Sakharine is a one-note villain. Only the dog seems like a character you might sympathize with — yes, these humans are rather dense — but he’s kept pretty definitively in a supporting role.
I don’t have a good sense of what kids might think of all this either. Some of the pretty adventure sequences might be eye-catching. But there isn’t an abundance of humor or wonder on display. And the movie, while only about an hour and 47 minutes, feels long. With nothing to sweep your imagination away, I have a hard time believing that kids — who arguably have a shorter attention span than I do — will stay caught up in this movie.
Since what we’re seeing obviously isn’t real — derring-do is a lot less shocking and awesome when it’s done in cartoon — there has to be some emotion behind it to make it important to us in the audience, to make us care about the outcome of events. Oddly — since “making us care” is one of Spielberg’s specialties — the movie never connects emotion and action. Like a well-designed, unplugged-in toaster, The Adventures of Tintin has style but no warmth. B-
Rated PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (from the comics series by Hergé), The Adventures of Tintin is an hour and 47 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures.