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‘The Adventures of Tintin’ is The Best Comic Book Movie of the Year [Review]

As embarrassing as it might be for someone with my job to admit it, I’ve never read Tintin, the classic comic series by Belgian artist Hergé. It’s always been described to me not only as a masterpiece, but as exactly the kind of genre-busting all-ages adventure story that I love, but it’s just been one of those gaps in my comics knowledge that I’ve never gotten around to filling. In that respect, I now think I know what it’s like to be one of those kids who got really into the Avengers movie without ever cracking open a comic book. But if that makes me a Johnny-come-lately, then so be it, because The Adventures of Tintin is hands down my pick for the best comic book movie of 2011.That might not sound like high praise — and admittedly, it came out just in time to be able to snag that title without going up against a Christopher Nolan Batman movie — but it was up against some pretty stiff competition. This was, after all, the year where I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America, Thor and even The Green Hornet. But Tintin doesn’t just edge by them, it blows them right out of the water with a fast-paced, thrilling adventure that captures the feeling of the best pulp stories and brings them to life with some of the best set pieces I’ve ever seen in any movie.

Of course, the fact that’s a good film doesn’t really come as a surprise considering the people behind it. It was directed by Steven Spielberg, produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, featured a script by Joe Cornish, Doctor Who and Sherlock showrunner Stephen Moffat and Scott Pilgrim‘s Edgar Wright. That’s a pretty good group by any measure, but it’s Spielberg’s involvement that makes it impossible to look at Tintin without comparing it to another one of his films that was built around the same kind of timeless, globetrotting treasure hunt adventure story: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In fact, Spielberg actually became aware of the Tintin comics after reading a review that compared them to Raiders. He has said in interviews that he thinks of Tintin as being like “Indiana Jones for kids,” which is a pretty weird statement. I’ve always though that Indiana Jones for kids was, you know, Indiana Jones; Raiders has always been my go-to example of a story that’s perfectly crafted for all ages. Then again, I might be alone in my view that if there’s one thing kids love, it’s watching Nazis have their faces melted off.

There’s definitely a cartoony aspect to a lot of the violence of the film that fits with the visuals, but despite Spielgerg’s “kids” qualifier, this is not a watered down adventure story. Tintin punches and gets punched, gets shot at and shoots back; there are even shots of sailors being thrown off of their ship to meet a death by drowning or being eaten by a shark.

I wouldn’t call the violence itself pervasive — very little of the gunfire actually hits anything, and with one exception, I don’t think any of it hits any people — but it does exactly what it needs to in the context of the movie. It underscores the danger that the characters are facing, making it that much more real, and that much more thrilling.

Which, the occasional face-melting aside, is another thing it has in common with Raiders. There’s even a direct callback where Tintin finds himself in danger of having his head chopped off by an airplane propeller. There are other similarities between the two films, too, even beyond the obvious globetrotting adventure that connects one grand set piece to the next. The one that really sticks out the most is that The Adventures of Tintin is an introduction without being an origin story.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s definitely an origin for Captain Haddock and his partnership with Tintin, but when we meet Tintin himself, he’s already fully formed as a character. He’s already a famous world-traveling journalist. There’s even a scene where he shouts to his landlady that someone’s been shot on their doorstep, and her response is an exasperated “Again?” Without an origin story in the way, we’re able to learn about Tintin from what he does, something that the movie pulls off beautifully.

Over the course of the film, we learn that Tintin is both affable and humble despite being famous, that he prides himself on pursuing his story, that he’s infinitely clever and resourceful, that he’s loyal to his friends even when he’s frustrated with their flaws, that he’s surprisingly tough, and even that he’s an incredible marksman. That last fact comes out with one of the most memorable lines of the movie, when he tells Captain Hadock that “The bad news is that we only have one bullet.” Captain Haddock asks “What’s the good news?” Tintin says “We have one bullet,” and then proceeds to bring down an airplane with one shot from a handgun.

In other words, Tintin’s awesome.

And the adventure that he and Captain Haddock go on is just as awesome. It’s the sort of enthralling, fast-paced adventure that throws in everything that captures a kid’s imagination: pirate treasure, secret codes, mysterious artifacts that hide smaller and even more mysterious artifacts inside them, exotic locations, daring heists, thrilling escapes, airplanes, steamships, swordfights, gunfights, and crane-fights. The story threads through them with barely a break between them, and it never stops being exciting.

In an extended flashback narrated by Captain Haddock as he suffers through delerium tremens while walking through the Sahara desert (!), we learn the story of an attack on his ancestor’s ship by pirates. As played out as pirates might’ve become after the past decade, this one tops them all. The movie twists the fight in monumentally clever and even literal ways, when the masts of the two ships get tangled at 90 degrees while a storm rages around them, and people cling to the deck for dear life while others run along the sideways masts to battle.

The sequence is so thrilling that Spielberg actually has it come to a stop while the rest of the movie catches its breath, only to go back to it and build to two characters having a swordfight while one of them tries to put out a lit trail of gunpowder and the other tries to reignite it.

The only flaw in the entire sequence is that having such a memorable chunk of the movie revolving around events that happened 200 years before the main characters were born sort of detracts from them. But that’s addressed when Spielberg & Co. follow it up with the next big set piece, a chase scene in which Tintin, Haddock and the villain, Sakharine, use an entire city as a combination playground and battlefield. It’s something that takes full advantage of the animation they’re working with, creating uncut shots that would’ve otherwise been impossible that end up as beautiful pieces of action.

Which brings us to the visuals. There was a lot of criticism before the movie came out about the departure from Hergé’s simple, clean style in favor of motion-captured CGI, and to be honest, I was fully expecting the hyper-realistic renditions of exaggerated cartoon traits to drop right in the uncanny valley the second the opening credits were over. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen much — for a movie from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson that was released four days before Christmas, I haven’t noticed a huge marketing push at all — but it was something I’d been aware of.

In the end, though, I thought it looked great. The only character that seemed distracting in that respect was the opera singer, Bianca Castafiore, but everyone else worked well. Their movements are fluid, the faces are expressive, and the exaggeration contributes to the sense of heightened realism that permeates the movie. It doesn’t stop with the characters, either — everything’s brighter than it should be, from the cars and buildings of Tintin’s Belgian home to the deep orange sands and electric blue skies of the Sahara. It’s the most vivid thing I’ve seen since Speed Racer, and along with the fact that they’re constantly diving into water and emerging completely dry after a few minutes, it underscores the idea that they live in the bright, poppy world of comics.

It’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s well-written and well-acted, and despite being based on stories that were originally published in the early ’40s, it feels fresh and new even when it’s playing with elements that have become standard sections of adventure fiction. I absolutely loved it, and if the goal was to hook a novice like me to the point where I’m buying Tintin books to read while I wait for the next film, then they’ve definitely done it.

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