Sunday, 1 March 2015

Indiana Jones and the Remake for Profit

DVD Notes: "The Adventures of Tintin"

Tintin and Captain Haddock in a troublesome situation in "The Adventures of Tintin"

In my introduction to The Back Row, I wrote that I’d be seeing films years, even decades after their release, and shouting out my own uncouth commentary from my seat among the distracted and amorous here at the back. So far, anyone who missed my introduction and my mention in it of 
Singin' in the Rain and Raging Bull, will think I’ve never seen a film released before 2008, the earliest date of a film I’ve reviewed so far. Now, my first review of a Steven Spielberg film would have been a marvellous opportunity to begin remedying this, with some of the Boy Wonder’s most iconic and beloved features being landmarks in the New Hollywood of the 1970s and early 1980s. Alas, these, my first notes on Spielberg, are of one of his 2011 releases, The Adventures of Tintin (the other being War Horse), and I’ll have to go a little longer with readers doubting my level of cultural literacy.

The Adventures of Tintin is based on three of Hergé’s beloved Tintin albums: “The Crab With the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure.” These were written and published in the 1940s, and, though Spielberg describes the setting of his film as “just timeless Europe,” it seems very much constrained to that time. The place, however, seems to have been changed – the books were set in Belgium, but everyone here has a distinctively British accent, and when a currency is mentioned, it is Pounds Sterling. No matter, this is enough of a globe-trotting enterprise for the beginning and end points not to be of too much importance to an audience rapt with heedless activity.

The plot is hardly worth detailing here. Tintin comes into contact with an antique ship, with a centuries-old mystery joined, and adventure ensues in his search for answers. For those who have seen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (among whom I, unfortunately, cannot count myself), there is nothing new for you here, although – as I understand it – nothing new is needed by any of you from a Spielberg film. Indiana Jones’s 1940s caper has garnered enough affection from its fans to head a hugely successful film franchise and innumerable spin-offs and spoofs, as well as the famous derision of the hero’s inconsequence to the plot so heartlessly dished out on “The Big Bang Theory”. And now a high-tech 3D motion-capture adaptation of a dearly-loved children’s comic series, which could nearly take its place as the fifth Indiana Jones instalment. When Spielberg gets his hands on something that works (i.e. rakes it in), there’s no stopping him or the studios from stretching that workability (profit potential) until it’s too dried up (unmarketable) to yield any further enjoyment (returns).

To this jaunt, Hollywood’s foreign-correspondent fanboy-in-chief, Peter Jackson, has fastened both his considerable cinematic expertise and delightful technological wizardry, or at least his resources thereof.  Weta Digital, who created all the marvellous effects in Jackson’s Middle Earth series and King Kong, handled all the complicated and dazzling motion-capture and animation systems on this movie, and produced something uncannily like a three-dimensional representation of the comics. The characters are markedly stylised just as Hergé’s were, but they move and breathe and speak like live action humans, and their clothing or their hair, monochrome as in the comic books, are made up of visibly distinct fibres. The entire effect is simultaneously astounding and eerie.

Be warned, lovers of the comics (though you’ve probably all seen the film by now, and a warning is almost certainly redundant), it’s no mere happening that I mentioned the similarity between this film and the Indiana Jones series before that between this film and its source material. Changes have been made, as changes must be when adapting, and these changes have fitted the material to something much closer to a Hollywood romp. Surprises keep showing up to those who are expecting the world of Hergé’s old-world sensibility: in one scene in his home, Tintin suddenly pulls out a handgun when he’s give a fright; villains have been changed from a sinister European gang to a debonair and gentrified rogue; and, most disappointingly, we lose the inner dialogue of Snowy, Tintin’s dog, who here just yaps and tugs at Tintin’s hems to say what he needs to.

Despite my slight disillusionment with a delightful classic being turned into Hollywood product, I’m overall happy with the film. Characters’ actions are often disproportionate to their motives, and sometimes these are disregarded entirely, but Spielberg’s action moves ahead with a gleeful aplomb, and his characteristically arresting showmanship, and any qualms we may have with events and consequence, and with character and plot, are dismissed with the wave of his hand and the pulling back of another curtain to reveal another enthralling set piece. There is a sequence involving two battling ships, for example, which firmly wrenches the title of Most Spectacular Maritime Clash from the maelstrom-cataclysm in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. While the exuberant spectacles grip us, however, we feel there’s something lacking in the quieter, in-between scenes. Hergé curiously seems to have been able to capture more humanity in his inkspot-eyes that Weta’s brilliant technicians have with their immense computer power.

I’m not sure what it is that Spielberg’s frequent collaborators Janusz Kamiński (director of photography) and Michael Kahn (editor) did on this film. Kamiński was reportedly a “lighting consultant” to Weta Digital, and I assume he had something to do with the way the frame swoops and glides past characters and props throughout the film. Animation is certainly a medium conducive to the realisation of Spielberg’s intentions: we get to see things in this film, as in a number of his others, which we’ve not seen before, like what it looks like hanging beneath the body of a racing car. Not a major revelation, but something new nonetheless. Inventive staging (if that’s an appropriate word here) and brisk pacing prevail, as one would hope and expect, and the mark of Spielberg, never having worked in animation before, is still on every shot.

The Adventures of Tintin is unlikely, I think, to be treasured as a classic like the books have been and like Indiana Jones has been, but it’s a successful endeavour, shortcomings notwithstanding, and I shall be off with the masses to ride along with any much-touted sequels which lie ahead.

The Adventures of Tintin stars Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, and Simon Pegg.

A scene in "The Adventures of Tintin", reminiscent of Spielberg's favourite film, "Lawrence of Arabia"

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