I first encountered Tintin, the Belgian comic-book artist Hergé’s immortal reporter-detective, while trailing behind my parents in one of the many pretentious secondhand shops that clutter up southern New England. The books were hardcover and in French (as I said, pretentious), but my eight-year-old self was bored enough by the day’s excursion to be satisfied with the pictures alone — satisfied, then excited, and then rapt. Not only did my father feel obliged to buy the books, but he spent the next few days using his high-school French to translate the dialogue for me. (I suspect that he was greatly relieved when we discovered that the rest were available in English.)
It’s a great compliment to Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson that I could imagine a non-English-speaker watching their new Adventures of Tintin (Spielberg directed, Jackson produced) without subtitles and being similarly swept away. Using motion-capture performances and computer animation, they’ve conjured up some of the magic of Hergé’s books: the almost silent-movie sense of motion and momentum, the cast of characters so archetypal that you don’t need to hear them speak to know them, and the rich and vivid backdrops that any globetrotting hero deserves.
They’ve also resisted the temptation to mess radically with the basic Tintin formula. I was dreading some sort of James Bond–ian stakes-raising that would pit Hergé’s characters against Nazis or Russkies or a supervillain out to destroy the world. Instead, the script combines elements from three of Hergé’s books — The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure — into a pleasingly straightforward narrative whose seams barely even show.
The movie is a treasure hunt, no more and no less, carried out by car and ship and seaplane, in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his bibulous, blustering companion Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) pursue the lost cargo of Haddock’s 17th-century ancestor Sir Francis. Along the way, they’re menaced by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and his attendant goons; assisted, clumsily, by the idiotic bowler-hatted detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg); and backed up at all times by Tintin’s doughty wire fox terrier, Snowy.
Because it doesn’t try to gloss the whole Tintin oeuvre, certain beloved characters are missing from this movie. (There’s no sign of the deaf and distracted Professor Calculus, for instance, who became almost as much of a fixture as Haddock in later books.) But Spielberg has shrewdly zeroed in on material from the early 1940s. Even though Hergé kept writing into the 1970s, his hero fundamentally belongs to the age of fedoras and freighters, tommy guns and Studebakers, and it would be wrong to introduce him any other way. Indeed, in a sense this movie feels like a kind of extended apology for Spielberg’s recent betrayal of his own Saturday-morning-serial hero, Indiana Jones, who was left stranded in the Cold War era by the disastrous Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
The only problem with The Adventures of Tintin is that it runs a bit too long, straining to fill out 105 minutes with a story that’s fundamentally designed — like any good serial — to wrap up in closer to an hour. The Indiana Jones movies justified their running time by weaving in a little romance, but Tintin is no Harrison Ford: In print and pixels alike, his cheeks have never seen a razor. The world of Hergé is fundamentally sexless: a never-never land of boyhood whose only recurring female inhabitant is the opera diva Bianca Castafiore, a frightening caricature of grown-up womanhood. She puts in a cameo appearance in this movie, shattering bulletproof glass with her high notes.
It’s to Spielberg’s credit that he doesn’t try to invent a love interest for Tintin or a romance for Haddock. The characters are simply not designed for those sorts of complications. But this leaves the movie with nothing to do but pile on the chase scenes and set pieces past the point of diminishing returns. By the time we reach the grand finale, the script’s otherwise-impressive sense of restraint has given way to a typical blockbuster showdown, in which Haddock and Sakharine slug it out with giant dockyard cranes, like a 1940s version of Transformers.
It’s an ending that loses touch with the fact that the pleasures of the Tintin books are fundamentally low-tech: the cosh to the head, the gun poked in the ribs, the car wheeling around the corner, and the sudden “Eureka!” moment over a code or book or map. Hergé’s eager-beaver reporter doesn’t have a superhero’s powers, and he doesn’t have Indiana Jones’s facility with a whip. All he has is brains, gumption, and the willingness to take a punch (or a dose of chloroform) in the service of his story. The reader doesn’t expect him to save the world or leap tall buildings or trade blows with a supervillain. We just expect him to keep on coming, until he finally gets his man.