In 1993, Steven Spielberg made "Jurassic Park," a film that represented a huge leap forward in computer effects. Visually, it was simply stunning, and as long as you didn't mind the fact that the characters weren't all that interesting, you could have a pretty fun time with it. Ultimately, "Jurassic Park" isn't one of Spielberg's best movies, but it's a landmark because of how it opened the door for a new generation of effects-heavy blockbusters.
Eighteen years later, Spielberg is at the forefront of a new leap forward in moviemaking. But like "Jurassic Park," Spielberg's new motion-capture film, "The Adventures of Tintin" (which had its North American premiere last night at AFI Fest in Los Angeles), feels more like a model for what cutting-edge technology can do than a really exceptional movie in its own right.
"The Adventures of Tintin" is based on a handful of Tintin adventures from Belgian artist Herge (real name Georges Remi) from the 1940s. Even if, like me, you're not intimately familiar with the stories, "Tintin" couldn't be easier to follow. Tintin (played by Jamie Bell) is a savvy young investigative reporter who goes everywhere with his loyal dog Snowy. While out in town, he becomes interested in buying a 17th century model boat called the Unicorn, which brings him into conflict with a debonair (and possibly dangerous) fellow by the name of Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Sakharine wants to buy the boat as well, but Tintin has already purchased it, only later to discover that a scroll is hidden in the model that contains clues to some sort of treasure. Two other Unicorn models exist out in the world, and together they will reveal the exact location of gold that's buried at the bottom of the ocean. So now Tintin -- with the help of drunken ship captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) -- must outwit Sakharine to track down the boats.
"The Adventures of Tintin" is the first movie Spielberg has made since the truly awful Indiana Jones sequel, "The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and it's a relief that his new film finds him regaining his bearings after that debacle. Unfortunately, "Tintin" doesn't have the crackle of Spielberg's best recent action-thrillers, "Minority Report" or "War of the Worlds." Granted, "Tintin" is geared to a family audience, but while some of its action sequences are nicely done, there isn't enough of the sustained ingenuity that's been the hallmark of his work, even in his later years. For as much as Spielberg has expressed his adoration for the Tintin comics, the movie doesn't feel like it comes from the heart -- it doesn't feel like a movie he desperately had to make.
Instead, it feels like a movie that he knows he can do really well. Specifically, "Tintin" will remind people of the Indiana Jones films with their exotic locales, goofy humor and earnest let's-solve-a-mystery spirit. But Spielberg doesn't entirely bring us back to 1981, no matter how much John Williams poaches from his "Raiders of the Lost Ark" score. It's probably most accurate to think of "Tintin" like Spielberg's comeback album, the one in which a venerable band decides to get back to the basics that made them successful in the first place. The new movie doesn't top anything from his past, but it does offer some gentle nostalgia for days that used to be.
As for the film's technical side, well, it's just about as astounding as one would imagine. The 3D is superb, and the mo-cap doesn't have the dreaded "dead eye" effect that plagued Robert Zemeckis when he was doing "The Polar Express." But just as he seemed to fixate on the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" to the detriment of character development or storytelling, so too in "Tintin" does Spielberg devote his energies to his movie's eye-popping world. Unfortunately, that makes it really hard to care all that much about Tintin's adventures. Put another way, I'm not sure if I could tell you more than three things about Tintin as a character. Apparently he's such a beloved institution that Spielberg and his three screenwriters (Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) don't seem particularly concerned about fleshing him out at all. It's never a good sign when the dog sidekick seems to have more personality than the hero.
For most films, these sorts of liabilities would be crippling, so it's lucky that "Tintin" has Spielberg. I can't say I was invested all that much in what was going on during the movie, but I had a great time watching it. Spielberg is definitely guilty of overkill in staging elaborate single-take action sequences that lose some of their dazzle because we know it's all computerized, thus reducing the degree of difficulty that partly gives action set pieces their visceral thrill. But then there are all those moments -- both big and small -- where his gift for showmanship remains unparalleled. "Jurassic Park" showed other filmmakers what was possible and they responded with works as brilliant as "The Matrix." Along with "Avatar," "The Adventures of Tintin" suggests what's on the horizon for 3D and motion-capture. Now I want someone else to do something truly amazing with it.