USA/New Zealand
102 minutes

Typical: no news from Steven Spielberg for three years and, just like buses, two films come along at the same time (with two more on the pipeline). His live-action adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse comes in time for Christmas in the US and UK, while this performance-capture big-screen outing for Belgian artist Hergé's much-loved comic-book character opens in Europe in late October, two months ahead of its US release. Makes sense: Tintin and his canine sidekick Snowy are, after all, icons in most of the non-English speaking world and have barely travelled across the Atlantic. But this is nevertheless the director's riskiest project in a long time, seeing him join forces with Peter Jackson to bring to life in the big screen the cartoon universe of Tintin, through extensive CGI animation and performance-based digital renderings of the series' iconic characters.

     The script, by writer Steven Moffat (current showrunner for Doctor Who) and writer/directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), sets up the timeless mid-century, Old-European world of the comics, with the adventurous cub reporter (Jamie Bell) whisked around the world by the fiendish Sakharine (Daniel Craig) in search of three pieces of parchment that signal the location of a lost treasure. It follows faithfully the spirit of the books and the plotline of the diptych The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure, while introducing episodes and references to other stories. And Mr. Spielberg, much aided by his regular collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, displays an extraordinary control of rhythm, tempo and tone, keeping the film moving along briskly and, occasionally, even exhilaratingly.

     It's the visuals that are the problem here. Well, maybe not exactly a problem: this sort of entirely CGI-created universe is probably the only way the books could be adapted so faithfully (standard live action wouldn't work, as a couple of previous, French-made attempts proved). But the photo-realist perfection of digital animation clashes with the curvy, elastic features of the characters, resulting in an often awkward mixture of styles that never truly gel together or find common ground. The performers try their best, but Mr. Bell's earnest Tintin is totally defeated by the stunning animation work done on Snowy and, especially, by Andy Serkis' embodiment of the grouchy sidekick sailor, Captain Archibald Haddock, explaining perfectly why the British actor has become the go-to guy for performance-capture acting after his previous collaborations with Mr. Jackson in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.

     Bringing Tintin to the big screen and doing justice to the original stories was a pet project of Mr. Spielberg's for years. But it's clear that while he greatly enjoyed dipping his toe in the "virtual cinema" framework that has been well explored previously by filmmakers such as Mr. Jackson, James Cameron and his friend and former protegé Robert Zemeckis, The Secret of the Unicorn is unlikely to go down as one of his most inspired works; it's an enjoyable, technically dazzling picture, but creatively a tantalizing failure that is likely to draw sharp lines in the sand between his fans (and Tintin's as well).

Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones.
     Director and lighting consultant, Steven Spielberg; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy; screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, based on the graphic novels by Hergé (Georges Rémi), The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure and The Crab with the Golden Claws; music by John Williams; visual effects supervisors, Joe Letteri, Scott E. Anderson; animation supervisor, Jamie Beard; film editor, Michael Kahn.
     A Columbia Pictures/Paramount Pictures presentation, in association with Hemisphere Media Capital, of an Amblin Entertainment/Wingnut Films/Kennedy-Marshall Company production. (US distributor, Paramount Pictures. World sales, Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), October 13th 2011. 


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