Every once in a while, I tell myself I really should get around to seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m not sure whether it’s out of morbid curiosity or some far-fetched hope that it will actually turn out to be better than I expect. I’ve heard the horror stories, of course. The fridge, the aliens. Shia LaBeouf. On the other hand, I tell myself every time, it’s Steven Spielberg. The same Spielberg who made Raiders of the Lost Ark. How bad can a Spielberg adventure movie really be? Well, after seeing the awful mess that is The Adventures of Tintin, I’m afraid the answer to that question is pretty freaking bad. We’re talking Pirates of the Caribbean (post-Curse of the Black Pearl) bad here. If Tintin is a step above the atrocious On Stranger Tides, it’s only because Spielberg, unlike Rob Marshall, is actually a competent director, and because Tintin’s story isn’t quite as stupid or convoluted.
Before I delve further into Tintin’s shortcomings, a word about the way the movie looks. I am by no means a diehard Tintin fan. I did read most of the books as a kid, and for the most part enjoyed them, but I haven’t read one in over a decade. If Spielberg’s decision to use motion capture to bring the world of Tintin to life bothers me, it is therefore not because it betrays the spirit of the comics, as some have put it, but simply because it looks rather ugly and, worse, utterly charmless. Tintin, Haddock, and the others look like a bunch of puppets; finely animated puppets, sure, but puppets nonetheless. The uncanny valley effect is in full force; some will get used to it faster than others, but I never did. I can only take so many close-ups of a screaming, empty-eyed Haddock before it starts looking like the stuff of nightmares. Not an auspicious start, but really, the film’s visual identity is the least of its problems.
(Need I say that the 3D is, as is so often the case, utterly pointless? As I always do during 3D movies, I took the glasses off at random intervals, and there rarely was even a slightly noticeable blur; in other words, it seems like most of the movie isn’t even in 3D.)
As you’ve most likely already read somewhere else, Tintin does not follow one particular volume of the reporter’s adventures, but instead combines three of them to create its own story. It’s a perfectly defensible choice on the part of screenwriters Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish; unfortunately, the story is merely a backdrop for a relentless succession of tedious action scenes, and quickly devolves into a pile of clichés and predictable twists. It starts with Tintin (Jamie Bell) buying a model ship off a market stall and meeting the sinister Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), whose interest in the model is such that he first has it stolen, then resorts to kidnapping Tintin. (Sakharine, by the way, is a dead ringer for a younger Spielberg. Make of that what you will.) Tintin, who before his kidnapping has managed to figure out that the model is part of a puzzle leading to a sunken treasure, wakes up aboard a cargo ship that’s been hijacked by Sakharine. Tintin, of course, escapes, runs into Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and together they set out to counter Sakharine’s plans and find the treasure themselves.
Tintin’s screenplay is incredibly lazy, and more often than not treats the viewer like an idiot. Everything is repeated two, three times, just to make sure you got it. Tintin mentions that a particular item is kept within a bulletproof case; a few minutes later, we actually get to see the case, and the camera lingers for a good three seconds on the “bulletproof” sign on it. It’s bulletproof, get it? Tintin also has the annoying habit of thinking aloud, which is used to deliver stilted exposition or to clue in viewers on things they guessed ten minutes ago; coupled with Tintin’s tendency to repeat whatever he’s told in a surprised tone, it makes him look like an incompetent idiot. (You might remember that Indiana Jones would also think aloud at times. However, it never got as bad as in Tintin, and it was actually used to great dramatic effects in a number of scenes, such as in the trials at the end of Last Crusade.) The screenplay also relies way too much on contrived coincidences, starting with Tintin buying the model mere minutes before Sakharine can. “Nothing’s an accident,” Sakharine tells Tintin at some point, but almost everything in Tintin is. An entire subplot involving a genius pickpocket is even created for the sole purpose of having Tintin lose his wallet early on in the film; once Tintin needs his wallet back at the halfway point, that subplot is hastily resolved and never brought up again. The entire screenplay is equally sloppy, and most of the time, problems aren’t actually solved by the characters, but by chance.
That wouldn’t be such a problem if the action, for which the story is but an excuse, was any good. Unfortunately, it is most often tedious and lifeless. Tintin, and that’s its greatest fault, is not a fun movie, and part of the reason is that it’s not a funny movie. We love Indy so much not because he’s good-looking and handy with a whip (though we do love him for that, too), but because of his dry wit and cynicism. That’s the reason why we root for him, though it helps that his enemies are complete monsters. Tintin is the opposite of Indy; he’s an extremely bland, unfunny character, which makes it hard to relate to him in any way. The entirety of the film’s humor actually comes from two sources, the first being Haddock and his drunken antics, which get old really fast. The second is the obnoxious duo of Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), the incompetent Scotland Yard detectives that follow Tintin around and provide us with slapstick on par with the R2-D2 scenes at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith (needless to say, Laurel and Hardy they’re not). Pegg and Frost are shamelessly typecast, and since viewers know they’re supposed to be funny guys, they aren’t even given any actually funny jokes. That’s how lazy the movie is. It is all the more disappointing because Wright and Cornish have made some incredibly smart and funny films over the past few years, and with Shaun of the Dead and Attack the Block, have written or co-written two of the tightest screenplays in recent memory, but none of their skill is on display here.
The action, I mentioned earlier, is relentless, so much so that it makes Raiders of the Lost Ark look quiet by comparison, and while most of it is dull and tiresome, there are a couple flashes of brilliance that convinced me that Spielberg hasn’t completely lost it. The first is the retelling by Haddock of what happened the night the Unicorn was lost at sea. It’s a genuinely great action sequence that’s everything the rest of the film isn’t: thrilling, funny, and full of life. (It also borrows, perhaps unwittingly, one very recognizable visual element from the climax of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, in the one moment that’s entirely unlike anything from that tired franchise.) The duel between Sir Francis Haddock and Red Rackham alone is better than many adventure movies in their entirety. There’s also a nifty chase scene that gets more and more ridiculous as it unfolds, but is sadly punctuated by yet another unfunny joke by Thompson and Thomson, the film veering dangerously close to self-parody.
The one great thing about Tintin is the brilliant score by John Williams. The first few notes tell you the master hasn’t lost his touch, and those opening moments may actually be the best of the movie. The credits feature an animated silhouette that looks much like Hergé’s Tintin chasing bad guys, getting into fistfights, and trying to recover a mysterious artefact. It’s silent but for Williams’s music and told all in ellipses, but it’s funnier and more thrilling than everything that is to follow. No lame jokes, no corny exposition. Just adventure as it was meant to be.