The Adventures of Tintin
2011 was not a particularly notable year for American film. It did, at the least, however, see the return to action of the modern American director who had done the most to influence modern American directing: Steven Spielberg. Mostly absent for about six years, with only the middling (but quite honestly entirely competent and occasionally inspired) Indiana Jones 4 to wet his whistle in the middle of that period, 2011 saw Spielberg returning to a tried-and-true formula long known to him, and long successful: releasing two films in one year, one a sentimental, somewhat saccharine historical drama for the middlebrows and the other a big ol’ supped-up children’s adventure for the young’ins who find sentiment just a tad too … respectably suburban for their tastes. December brought us both the arch-Oscarbait of War Horse and the self-conscious Indiana Jones pastiche The Adventures of Tintin, itself most notable, if anything, for being marketed to a distinctly more European audience than a normal blockbuster of such import and backing. Naturally, that’s fitting for the material: a family comic series by Belgian artist Herge centering the youthful adventurer Tintin and his band of merry companions all throughout the racialized, Orientalist world.
In all honesty, little truly comes to the forefront to mark the series as distinctly “European”, excepting how it at the least paid lip service to the world as a larger, broader entity during a time when America was just a tad more interested in its own brand of saving-face inward-looking isolationism. That’s all well and good then, for it allows the film a certain fable-like broadness that doesn’t need much in the way of specific knowledge or set-up to pack up and set forth on a merry ol’ adventure the likes of which the world has never seen.
Except, of course, the world has seen this adventure before, as has Spielberg. He perfected it, in fact, thirty years before this film’s release with Raiders of the Lost Ark. But, I suppose, he hasn’t technically seen it quite like this before, for this film is made in that eternally confused motion-capture-o-vision technique so perplexingly existent today. While it undeniably boasts a certain technicality lacking in other animated forms, it sacrifices so much in artistic invention and mythic simplicity of design while bending over backwards to flex its technical muscles that the whole trade-off seems a bit of a wash. And that’s without any of the watery, often disconcerting inhumanity of the whole look that keeps it from ever achieving its photo-realist goals. There’s something to be said for non-realist fable-like imagery all caught up in simple, flat, even impressionist lines and strokes, a sort of animation not interested in technical prowess or photo-realism. This kind of very-much-artistic look that allows for films to move away from reality and toward our dreams and nightmares seems infinitely more appealing in a day and age so in love with pure ear-piercing technical mastery. Yet Tintin sacrifices all of this for realist technical prowess even when it can’t remotely appear “human”.
But enough about technique. The bigger problem with Tintin is that the film is mostly just content to be “a nice time” and nothing more. Certainly, this is not the worst thing a film can be, but it’s not wrong to hope for a little more from a director of Spielberg’s import. The film captures the free-wheeling lightness and airy adventure of its source and the at-times delirious glee of adventure serials. It’s very much only “good” at this though, and seldom great. A few moments really stand tall – there’s a downright titanic single-shot chase mid-way through the film that matches high-flying excitement with the quick-firing, perfectly-timed chaos of Keaton-esque physical comedy – but they are flashes of inspired anarchy in an otherwise uninspired film.
More generally, the colors pop with an eye for feverish energy (there’s a one-minute pirate battle that matches anything in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and without the self-indulgent three-hour portentousness of the suffocating seven-layer exposition dip blanketed on top of it). The whole film is well constructed, and edited like it walks around in a drunken stupor. And it at least has the good grace to act like the big glorious cartoon that it is. For all Tintin’s lack of ambition, it achieves what it sets out to do and satisfies on its own terms. But it lacks that certain special awe, that sense of wonderment only caused by a film being lost in its own existence like a child in a candy store. This film feels, for lack of a better word, too calculated and too professional to let loose and gaze at the stars, and for a big ol’ candy-coated adventure story, that sort of limit is, if not a killing-blow, a shame indeed.
Insofar as Super 8 is a modern blockbuster, it’s not a half-bad one. Since Star Trek, JJ Abrams has improved immeasurably as a director of self-consciously large movies rather than simply a middleman in the script-to-screen television process. He gives us a clear-eyed depiction of his mindless indulgence into special effects, especially in the ravaged chaos of an early film train wreck that captures less then realist sight of a train exploding than the sheer hopeless un-godliness of children experiencing the heart of a train wreck from the inside-out and imagining it in the most grandiose terms possible. If his story about children filming a super 8 movie in the late ’70s and coming at-odds with an alien cover-up conspiracy is meant to be a “special effects extravaganza”, he generally knows what he’s doing.
Thankfully, however, Abrams very much does not see this film as a modern blockbuster. To him, it is almost exactly what it would have been had it been released in 1978: a child’s eye exploration of the world. Naturally, children imagine special effects, for they are given to flights of fancy. But what Abrams reminds here, and what so many other blockbuster filmmakers seem to have thrown by the way-side when society grew them up real good like, is that children imagine them in distinctly child-like ways. They are not only given to imagining special effects, but they are given to exploring them, peering around within them, debating them, worrying about them, and connecting to them as mythic, expressionistic masses of confusion, dread, and awe. Abrams’ film yokes us to this perspective; even when things get a little bit “military chasey” toward the end, it’s wisely captured with a child’s eye for the chaos and confusion of your filmic dreams invading your cushiony suburban lifestyle.
Thus, Abrams understands the reflexive horror and wide-eyed confusion of childhood as much as the glee and awkward romance of it, but he never gives in to garish horror, nor does he lose his touch for warmth and innocent empathy. The film’s best bit is its end credits, where we’re treated to an embarrassingly endearing recreation of the film that Super 8’s main characters spent so much time haphazardly bickering about. Super 8 is nostalgic, but in a distinctly warm, rather than suffocating way, largely because it tempers its gawking sentimentalism with the clear-headed snarkiness of an adult filmmaker looking back on the undeniable limits of that which he loved as a child, and probably still loves today.
Even better, perhaps, is how Abrams gives credence to ’70s filmmaking through the act of his own film here. Not only does it “deal” with ’70s filmmaking diegetically and as “narrative”, but Abrams has clearly studied the period well and recreated not only its real-world mores but its filmic norms. Simply put, Super 8 strives to “work” like a ’70s film in its shots and cuts, and it does an admirable job of capturing the distinct rhythms of a Spielberg or a Lucas. In particular, he “gets” the dynamic mix of wide and close-up shots used to alternate between broad and personal emotions. And on a personal note, did I catch a crash zoom in there? Not quite, but a few shots recall the proudly non-nuanced slap-dash camerawork that so defined the 1970s and just absolutely adored rushing across distances without all deliberate speed. It’s a minor detail, but the best “films about films” all explore their subject through their very filmic-ness, their visual and aural nature. Abrams isn’t quite up to the task of showing what is much easier to tell, but he gives it a game try.