It’s the first rule of franchise film-mak-ing: make sure the fanboys are on board. Perhaps Steven Spielberg figured he had got this more or less covered for his glossy and weirdly formless new movie about the intrepid blond-quiffed boy reporter Tintin, crusty maritime pal Captain Haddock and feisty dog Snowy, based on the classic Hergé comic books created between 1929 and 1976.
In the unlikely event that Spielberg monitors Britain’s broadsheet press, he will have discovered that our fourth-estate Tintin fanboys are a formidable and articulate bunch, not easily brought into the tent. When Spielberg’s digital adaptation The Adventures of Tintin was unveiled to the press recently, my colleague Xan Brooks adroitly turned the tables on it, comparing its ‘motion capture’ animated look to the liquid polyester in which Tintin is dipped in the final, unfinished story, Tintin and Alph-Art. The critic and Tintin scholar Nicholas Lezard also ripped Spielberg a new one, with a column in which he denounced the movie as a crass and soulless travesty.
I never read Tintin much as a child and I have no great sense of personal investment. But I think Brooks and Lezard are right. This Tintin is a spirited and amiably intentioned green-screen spectacular, but the motion-capture animation makes all the characters look like Ronseal marionettes. It’s a photoreal approximation of live action that is technically outstanding, but it has, for me, none of the charm, clarity and style of Hergé’s drawings and none of the immediacy and panache of flesh-and-blood human beings. It is frustrating to watch this, and notice how such a scene would be funny if it were drawn, or gasp-inducingly impressive if it were real. But this quasi-real mo-cap style is neither one thing nor the other. Even given that the point of Tintin is that it is a cartoon — well, motion capture doesn’t capture it.
Tintin is gamely played by Jamie Bell, which is to say Bell provides the moving template from which the animated images are derived, though he is not more connected with a carbon-based original than is Snowy. From a market trader, Tintin impulsively buys an old model ship; this secretly contains a metal tube holding a precious manuscript, holding the key to the whereabouts of fabulous treasure. Tintin finds himself battling the evil Sakharine (Daniel Craig) for this tube, and also encounters the bumbling inspectors Thompson and Thomson, played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He also fatefully meets up with Captain Haddock, the boozy old sea-dog played by Andy Serkis, who has a weird and unexpected genealogical link with grand and powerful forebears.
There is plenty of spectacle and activity, albeit seen through this Perspex screen of computer animation. I was intrigued by the hidden lair of a pickpocket who with obsessive-compulsive commitment has created a library of all the wallets he has ever stolen.
But for all the surface fizz, there is something flat and robotic and a little bit aimless about this Tintin. The opening credits, which playfully pastiche the original drawings with simplicity and wit, are actually more interesting and exciting than what follows. A disappointment.