Steven Spielberg is in “Indiana Jones” mode in this 3D-animated adaptation of Herge’s Belgian comic book about an intrepid young reporter, his dog, and the adventures they get into together. Unfortunately, it’s more the “Indiana Jones” of the “Temple of Doom” or “Crystal Skulls” than “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In other words, “The Adventures of Tintin” offers lots of action but precious little else—besides, of course, the amazement one’s likely to feel over its cutting-edge employment of motion-capture technology. It’s a visual marvel and, like the Energizer Bunny, never stops going, but in the end proves more exhausting than exhilarating.
Part of the problem is that the title character, like that Bunny, cuts a pretty bland figure. As voiced by Jamie Bell (who also performed the action that was later translated via computer software into the final animated product), he’s a curiously colorless young man, physically remarkable for nothing apart from a prominent swirl of hair above his blank, expressionless face. Young boys might be able to identify with him—certainly scads of mostly European kids have done so over the decades (the comic remains pretty much a cult item in the US)—but from the perspective of an outsider he comes across like one of the Hardy boys out on his own. His dog Snowy has more personality than he does.
Nor is the plot, largely drawn from one of Herge’s originals, “The Secret of the Unicorn,” much. Tintin, who’s offhandedly shown having snared a series of scoops with his investigative work (one wonders what young viewers will make of those strange things called newspapers they appeared in), purchases a model of a ship at an outside market, only to have a couple of suspicious characters suddenly offer to buy it from him. The thing turns out to conceal one part of a message that will lead to a fabulous treasure, and it’s ultimately revealed that one of the men anxious to acquire it is evil Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig). He’s the descendant of notorious pirate Red Rackham, who lost the loot centuries before in an encounter with Sir Francis Haddock (Andy Serkis), captain of the Unicorn and the man responsible for the model. And Sakharine’s now looking to get it back.
A series of break-ins, chases and abductions take Tintin to the ship of alcoholic Captain Archibald Haddock (Serkis again), the descendant of Sir Francis, which has been commandeered by Sakharine. The youth and the hard-drinking seaman join together to locate the remaining parts of the message before Sakharine can do so. The effort whisks them to exotic locales by ship, plane, motorcar and foot as they frantically aim to catch up to the villain and outmaneuver him. One of the most flamboyant encounters occurs in Morocco, where they encounter an opera singer with a voice so intense that her rendition of a Gounod aria shatters every bit of glass in sight (including the bulletproof glass case housing a second Unicorn model) before engaging in a car chase down the winding roads to the Mediterranean that seems to go on for hours.
That might be said of the entire film. Spielberg, co-producer Peter Jackson and their army of craftsmen certainly stage all the high-octane action in the script with a degree of technical wizardry that’s truly extraordinary, achieving a fluidity of motion that’s actually enhanced by use of the 3D format that’s as subtle as Martin Scorsese’s in “Hugo.” And it’s accompanied by a score from John Williams that alternates the comic cheekiness of his past work in pictures like “1941” with the more brassily propulsive tone of his “Star Wars” and “Raiders” music.
But the screenplay by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish doesn’t add much to the piece in terms of wit; apart from a few fairly jejune bits of comic dialogue, which wouldn’t have been out of place in 1940s serials, it’s a fairly undistinguished piece of work. And the characters never transcend the standard-issue comic-book stage. Apart from the tepid Tintin, there’s Captain Haddock, who’s apparently meant to be lovably gruff but instead comes across as irritatingly oafish. Serkis brings less personality to him than he did to Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (a role which, sadly, was better written). And Craig can’t endow the figures of Rackham and Sakharine with anything but a generalized silken malevolence. Even the usually funny Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as a couple of bumbling detectives, are left stranded by the sub-par material.
In the end, though there’s no denying the technical mastery Spielberg and his associates exhibit in what must have been a labor of love for them (they’re all die-hard Tintin fans, of course), their film lacks the heart and humor that Scorsese brought to his similarly eye-popping act of homage. “Tintin” may run the faster race, but “Hugo” takes the prize.