My son has been a huge fan of Tintin since he first discovered it at the library so it was inevitable that we would be seeing the movie as soon as it came out. Although I admit I had misgivings from the first trailer where I learned that they were doing it with freaky sort-of-super-realistic 3D. You know, the kind they use on freak shows like Polar Express. But I withheld judgment because Avatar worked and perhaps they had figured out how to make it super realistic without the distraction of the uncanny valley.
Have you heard about the uncanny valley? It’s gotten quite a lot of press recently and I can’t help but bring it up every time I talk about Tintin. Basically the closer something simulated gets to reality the more your mind accepts it as real. Until you’re almost there and then, POW! The valley. It’s very close to real but there are small flaws that freak your mind out and make the whole experience creepy. Then you slowly get out of the valley and finally achieve reality.
So my review of Tintin is going to start with the valley because the entire movie is right smack at the bottom. It was a tricky choice for the filmmakers (Spielberg) because Herge’s art is very precise, representational, and often beautifully detailed. It would seem to lend itself well to the 3D treatment but I think it would be a serious challenge even for the brain trust at Pixar. What it absolutely did not need was the Robert Zemeckis super-uncanny-realism treatment. And this again comes back to Herge. He drew all his characters with strong identifying physical characteristics. What Spielberg did with Tintin was make the characters super-realistic and then slap on these physical characteristics, which immediately sends them to the bottom of the uncanny valley.
I’ve been working on a preview for the Seattle Children’s Film Festival and there is so much spectacular, beautiful, and effective 2D animation, I can’t help but think that Tintin would have been better served by a more traditional approach. But that’s neither here nor there. The movie has been made and we have to deal with it.
So, putting aside the disaster of the uncanny valley I’ll look at the movie itself. If I hadn’t known that it was a Spielberg movie I would have been able to guess. Spielberg has a lot of camera tricks he’s been slipping into his non-serious movies for years and years. Usually it’s just one super-zoom here or surprising camera reveal there, often restricted by the fact that he was having to do it in real life and it was expensive for the special effect or difficult and complicated for the live action setup. There are no such restrictions here and every few scenes there’s another Spielbergian flourish. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, and if you’re going to do it anywhere why not a cartoon adventure? And there are other times where he takes full advantage of the freedom of 3D to create stunning action sequences that are completely unbound by physical laws. I’m thinking in particular of my favorite part of the movie, the pirate flashback battle.
Otherwise, the filmmakers benefit from following Herge’s original story with reasonable fidelity so that they are forced into a kind of character development that gives the audience something to work with that isn’t just the old Hollywood tripe. If the source material had allowed it there’s no question Spielberg would have slapped poor Tintin with some long-lost father backstory. It must have been killing him. How is it possible that Tintin is a teenage reporter living alone?! Must…introduce…father…sub…plot.
We are so lucky.
There’s one final thing I should say about Tintin. He’s from an earlier age when boys and guns were considered a perfectly fine mix. There’s a comic strip called Tom the Dancing Bug that does an excellent Tintin parody. This is over the top but I think this strip will give you some idea of the odd juxtaposition of boy adventurer and violence that Tintin serves up. If you’re going to be showing the books to your kids be prepared to have a discussion about the violence – oh and Captain Haddock’s alcoholism. Alcoholics are hilarious!