Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Tin Eye
Today: Steven Spielberg's holiday treat, The Adventures of Tintin.
Previews for this film began showing up around Halloween, and it promised to be a rollicking good adventure and yet another step for computer animation on the continuum of stick figures on the one hand and absolute realism on the other.
The character of Tintin comes from a series of Belgian cartoons which ran from the 1930s to the 1960s plus or minus. Tintin is a young journalist who gets embroiled in adventures and solves puzzles. He is helped by his genius fox terrier Snowy, whose intellect appears to surpass that of many humans in the stories. (Even the journalist status of Tintin is a bit of whimsy, as he appears too young to have graduated from school, let alone attended college; but this is the stuff of fantasy: what child does not dream of her / himself in adult adventures?)
In Spielberg's film (produced by Peter Jackson--quite an adventure pedigree!), Tintin comes across a model of an old three-masted sailing ship at a street market and purchases it. He's immediately overrun with offers to buy the ship and warnings that the model is a dangerous implement that he would do well to avoid. When the ship is shortly stolen from his house, he and Snowy are off on a grand adventure around the globe to recover the model and discover the root of its mysterious power.
Animation over time has occupied a strange place in the world of entertainment. Many cartoons, especially TV cartoons, are aimed squarely at kids--TMNT, Scooby-Doo--and adults have a difficult time sitting still for them. But throughout the history of the cartoon, there have been many with a distinctly grown-up, or dual, appeal. Looney Tunes, for example, or The Pink Panther or Woody Woodpecker or Popeye, and later Ren and Stimpy or Beavis and Butthead. (Others are aimed primarily or entirely at adults, like Archer or Family Guy or South Park.)
Pixar has continued very much in the Looney Tunes vein, making features that capture the fancy of most kids while making fans of their parents as well. The Adventures of Tintin is not a Pixar project, but it carries on in the stream Pixar has helped feed now for 20 years. The previews for Tintin made it look almost like animated characters plunked into photographic settings. And indeed everything here that is not animate is rendered virtually in photo-realism. It's an absolute treat for the eyes throughout, combining the tactile, 3-D sense of the real world with the whimsy and no-limit possibilities of animation. Only the people (and Snowy) are rendered with a degree of cartoon distortion, but even this is highly variable. Tintin himself (voiced by British actor Jamie Bell) is pretty realistically drawn. You won't mistake him for a real person, but he's very close to that and his cartoon-ness quickly fades, as does that of Tintin's nemesis Sakharine (voiced by Daniel Craig). Others are more broadly made to varying degrees, and all are at least entertaining to look at. Voice talent is first-rate. There is still just a bit of stiffness to the human characters' movements. The realism of the backgrounds exacerbates this, since there is so much realism surrounding the action.
But that segues me into my chief complaint. One expects action and mayhem in a globe-trotting adventure, and the previews make this look almost like an installment in Spielberg's Indiana Jones franchise. That is very much its flavor. But after the initial setup and a chance to revel in the magnificent world Spielberg has created for us, I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the amount of screen time devoted to action scenes. It wasn't nonstop, but for long stretches one lengthy and frantic chase or fight scene follows hard onto another, and I wished for some breaks in the action, some quiet moments to chew on, you know, the plot. Both my wife and I left the theater with the senses a mite frazzled by all the explosions and whizzing cameras and shouts and gunfire. Overstimulation. With this I fear Spielberg will leave much of his adult audience behind (though I don't imagine kids will object). And all this action comes at the expense of a bit more detailed character development. We just don't get inside anyone's head enough to really care about them, and ergo it's hard to care much about the tale. This seems especially unfortunate, as all the dominoes are set up to make a really grand story, and it just feels like someone failed to exercise a little prudent restraint.
That leads us to that old style-versus-content conundrum, and we always get the same answer: technology and style can be fabulous things, but only insofar as they assist the telling of a compelling story. And it's worth remembering that it's possible to make a compelling cartoon with stick figures. It's all about story. To my mind, this lesson was lost sight of in The Adventure of Tintin, even if just a little. There's room here for improvement.