The Adventures of Tintin has all the passion and visual ingenuity missing from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It also has the enthusiasm that has been missing from Spielberg films for too long. Unfortunately it’s also a paint by numbers cartoon and while its combination of motion capture technology and visual style avoids the uncanny valley, the motion capture can’t invest the figures with a soul.
Indiana Jones didn’t work because cliched pulp stories were such a brilliant concept. It didn’t work on Spielberg’s skills alone. It’s actors who bring a story to life, and while The Adventures of Tintin manages to invest Captain Haddock with human characteristics, all the technology can’t seem to make him something more than a one-note character stumbling into another punchline.
The Adventures of Tintin is visually frantic because its characters are so stiff and the world is so flat. Snowy, Tintin and Haddock are constantly rushing and stumbling and flying over things in Bugs Bunny style, but they are Bugs Bunny, one-note characters pretending to be human in a story that was a cliche even when it was written.
The Adventures of Tintin is a passable movie, but it works best for those who want to see the characters in the comics come to life. Remaining audiences see Spielberg doing what Zemeckis did, being seduced into believing that the power of complete control over an environment means unlimited creativity. The Adventures of Tintin is more polished than most of Zemeckis’ efforts, only during the concert scene does the CG look truly tacky, but all that effort is still wasted.
3D cartoons work best when the characters are drawn simply and cartoonishly. The Adventures of Tintin teeters between photorealistic fidelity and the simple lines of a cartoon. Its opening gimmick, echoes the one from Team America World Police, but without the sense of humor. The technology being shown off is impressive, but it never manages to lift The Adventures of Tintin beyond its limitations.
Unlike Zemeckis’ efforts, Tintin’s failure can’t be blamed on unready technology. Tintin is as ready as the technology will ever be. Its characters are a world away from the nightmarish wooden puppets of Polar Express. But they’re not people and they never will be. Uncanny Valley doesn’t make them creepy, just limited.
Cartoonists always knew that simple lines can capture more depth than detail. It’s something even DC and Marvel know, which is why every issue doesn’t look like an Alex Ross painting inside. There are comics that try that, going for photorealistic paintings and they combine badly with a fast moving story.
The real loss here is that Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg have wasted their time trying to create their ideal movie in 3D CG, instead of making it the way they used to.
From 1980 to 2000, Zemeckis made the Back to the Future movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Cast Away and Forest Gump. Since then he made a bunch of disposable CG movies like Polar Express, Beowulf and Christmas Carol. Coming up next is Yellow Submarine.
The loss of Spielberg as an exciting director can’t be completely blamed on CG, but the difference between the first three Indiana Jones movies and the last one, is the difference between a director who went places to tell a story and one who went behind the Green Screen. Tintin isn’t lazy, but that’s because the artists are doing most of the work. It’s visually ingenious, technologically innovative and hollow. There’s action without momentum and visuals without impact. It’s clever without being alive.