I have eleven grandchildren, so I see plenty of children’s movies. I have acquired a jaundiced eye. As autumn leaves drift into piles, as souvenir teacups proliferate around a royal wedding, thus do crass, crude, cynical children’s movies pile up around the family DVD player.
Until now. The Adventures of Tintin is superb. Grandparents everywhere will babble tearful thanks: it’s so much better than it had to be, given the industry’s steadily decreasing quality (everywhere but Pixar-land). Credit must go to both of the stars at the helm, Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings) and Steven Spielberg (of too many hits to mention), and to the new technologies (motion-capture animation, improved 3-D process). However, none of this would be here without the hero himself.
Tintin, the creation of the Belgian comic-strip artist known as Hergé (1907–1983), is a boyish newspaper reporter of remarkable courage, who travels the world in pursuit of stories that reliably expose him to life-threatening danger. He appeared first in a story called “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” in which the brave youngster went to the Soviet Union to report on the world Josef Stalin was building — a world of artificial famine, phony elections, and political assassination. These stories, originally created for a children’s supplement to the conservative Roman Catholic weekly Le XXe Siècle, were an instant success. Book-length collections have sold over 200 million copies in 50 languages. Up till now, Tintin has not been well known in the U.S., but get ready for that to change.
The style of Hergé’s drawings is so distinctive — black lines surrounding each element, so that it stands out in simplicity — that news that a 3-D film version was under way was cause for concern among longtime fans. There was potential for disaster in any Tintin movie, but a flashy commercial 3-D version sounded worst of all. Dear Tintin’s familiar head is a sphere, with black dots for features and a peg for a nose. Any tampering with that — made cuter? more loveable? — was bound to be disastrous.
The movie’s first scene handles this problem brilliantly. It opens with someone — we don’t see his face — having his portrait made by an artist at an outdoor market. The artist finds his subject familiar, and it turns out to be Tintin himself. We see his companionable white fox terrier, Snowy, sniffing around, and hear Tintin say that he’s a journalist, but still don’t see his face. Finally the artist hands him the finished portrait, saying “I think I have captured something of your likeness.” The image shows the classic round head and button eyes of comic-book Tintin. Only then does the camera pan up (so to speak) and show us a more realistic-looking young man, who’s obviously the real Tintin; the “portrait” is only a cartoon. Very smooth touch there.
It’s hard not to gush over production value, but first let’s talk about entertainment value. This is a relentlessly exciting movie, and that’s what comes closest to being a flaw. In that regard, the movie is entirely faithful to the comics, which send Tintin rocketing (sometimes literally) from one scrape to another. Something is always blowing up, falling down, racing past, battling against, soaring aloft, jumping upon, or diving beneath. Sitting around, not so much. The stories are leavened with fine humor (provided, for example, by the inept detectives Thomson and Thompson), which prevents the stolid self-importance that afflicts some superhero movies. Still, all this breathless swinging from one cliffhanger to the next can be tiring.