Steven Spielberg is an audacious master of kinetic action poetry, and in The Adventures of Tintin (in theaters Dec. 21), his relentlessly boisterous 3-D adaptation of the Belgian action-adventure comic strip, the figures on screen rarely stop moving. Tintin has been animated with motion capture, and that’s the perfect term, too, for its kiddie Indiana Jones aesthetic: Every frame is designed to capture as much motion as possible. Tintin, a boy reporter with a cowlick and an eager, wholesome Hardy Boys attitude (he’s voiced by Jamie Bell), and the man he teams up with, the gruff, bearded drunken seaman Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), are searching for lost treasure, and that’s about all there is to the plot — it’s that basic. The two bounce from ocean liner to rowboat to propeller plane, then land in the Sahara, with a detour to a hallucinated pirate ship. Over and over, they run, leap, fall, bound, shoot through the air, and plunge.
I’m not one of those people with a knee-jerk disdain for motion capture (I enjoyed The Polar Express and loved Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol), but in Tintin, the technique that renders all that movement so flowing and frictionless also makes the characters come off as if their souls were made of sponge. Is this the “uncanny valley” — the much-discussed phenomenon whereby motion-capture characters look just human enough so that what’s missing from their eyes is subtly disquieting? Or is it simply that, as written, there’s nothing much of interest going on in Tintin, Haddock, or anyone else? The movie has some of the hollow frenetic virtuosity of Cars 2: It’s all busy action, all surface, all show. Even its “excitement” is numb. Spielberg, whose love of the Tintin comics is rooted in his childhood, may look at the hero’s blankly innocent freckled face and see a character who strikes a Proustian chord in him, but personally, I’ve barely even glanced at a Tintin comic, and what I saw looked more like The Adventures of Rubber Boy and Captain Boring.
Most of the characters in The Adventures of Tintin appear just close enough to reality that I kept wondering what the film would have felt like if, shot for shot, Spielberg had simply made it with live action. The answer, I’m afraid, is that it might have begun to look a lot like a National Treasure sequel, or a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, or maybe Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The animation is insanely detailed (if you watch closely, you can actually see the grumpy captain’s nose hair), and there are moments — a plane ride into the eye of a swirling electrical storm, a rousingly balletic sword fight — when the ingenuity of the action carries a hint of magic. But only moments. Even a filmmaker as dazzling as Steven Spielberg has to create characters who lure us into their point of view, and the trouble with Tintin is that we’re always on the outside, looking in. What all that motion can’t capture is our hearts. C