The hero of Steven Spielberg’s first animated film is a fresh faced, clear-eyed kid named Tintin (Jamie Bell). He looks all of 15, but he’s actually a world-traveling reporter and crime-fighter, famous in the way that someone like Agatha Christie’s Poirot is famous—his name is always on the tip of everyone’s tongue, they just need a little help putting two and two together.
Following Tintin wherever he goes is his sidekick, a little white terrier named Snowy. Like his owner, he’s a resourceful little thing and together there doesn’t seem to be any mystery too big for them to solve, any mess too big to escape.
They find their opposite in Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), whose sea legs don’t serve him too well on land or water. You might say he’s the Costello to their Abbott or that he has a weakness for alcohol the way that Blimpy from Popeye has a weakness for hamburgers. Together, this trio from the beloved Hergé comic book series has a mystery to solve, although for Tintin and Snowy it might be just an ordinary day.
The mystery involves an old model ship Tintin buys at an open-air antique market and the cryptic scroll he finds hidden in its mast later on. A wealthy man named Ivan Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig) wants both and will pay Tintin top dollar for them. If that fails, kidnapping isn’t too far to go to get what he wants. And what does he want exactly? I’ll save you some unnecessary confusion and let you know he wants what most other villains want—revenge and money.
But if Sakharine’s motives (and the movie’s central mystery itself) are a bit of a letdown—and they are—the fun is in the way Spielberg dishes his story out. The Adventures of Tintin uses motion capture technology to achieve a cartoonishly photorealistic look. It’s odd in places but it mostly works, and it allows Spielberg’s camera to become as free floating as a feather or a leaf tossed on the wind. In the most jaw-dropping example, Tintin and company are chased through the fictional Moroccan city of Bagghar, with each side trying to get their hands on a piece of the Unicorn’s puzzle. The chase is filmed in one soaring, swooping shot that takes audiences from the top of the city down to the very bottom, with characters popping in and out of frame in surprising and serendipitous ways. In terms of both its action potential and clarity, it’s a moment that tops most others from 2011.
As exciting as these visual flourishes are, though, it’s hard not to feel like The Adventures of Tintin is ultimately a retread of Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones series. One particular gag involving Captain Haddock and a bazooka feels like it was borrowed directly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The gag works in both cases, but I’m more partial to Sean Connery’s version than Serkis’.
The big question, I suppose, is whether a small quibble like this will matter to most moviegoers? I suspect it won’t. Spielberg brings such a sense of play and wonder to The Adventures of Tintin that even where it feels derivative or unwieldy it’s hard not to sense the legendary filmmaker’s own excitement and passion for the project bubbling just underneath the surface. Given how lifeless so many family flicks and adventure films can feel, that’s no small feat.