The last time audiences flocked to a Steven Spielberg-directed flick, they trudged out disconsolate at the soul-shattering shambles that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Although occupied with producing commitments, he hasn’t been this profligate since a well-deserved four-year sojourn after 1993’s Schindler’s List. Maybe he was soul-searching.
But as the old adage goes, form is temporary and class is permanent. Spielberg began shooting The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn two-and-a-half-years ago, which possibly illustrates his determination to settle back into the director’s chair. And in the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of Hergé’s roving Belgian reporter (Spielberg purchased the rights 18 years ago), the hallmarks have returned, but all too blatantly.
An amalgamation of the tales The Crab with the Golden Claws and the two-parter The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure, Tintin (Jamie Bell) and faithful dog Snowy investigate Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig)’s fascination with a model of the Unicorn ship. Swiftly embroiled in danger, the intrepid duo collaborate with the quaffed and grizzled Haddock (Andy Serkis) to unravel the mystique and mystery behind the 17th century vessel.
Hergé commented before his death in 1983 that Spielberg was the only director who could do justice to his comic creation. Evidently citing Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), that film is a recurring presence in a motion-capture adventure 30 years later. An escape sequence on a tramp steamer and a chase through African territory, although enjoyable, are animated rehashes benefitting from Michael Kahn’s rip-roaring editing.
Significantly, the latter two acts never hit the heights of the opening half hour. The noirish lighting, in what is assumed to be Brussels, sprinkles an element of danger upon proceedings as the story gathers momentum with balance and dexterity. But this isn’t matched by the globe-trotting travails in the continental heat, further handicapped by imbalanced recollections of Haddock’s ancestor.
One caveat with the motion-capture gimmick is that it is devoid of emotion-capture. And it is no coincidence that the sole actor who excels at this is the seasoned Serkis. Craig adopts a menacing tone as Sakharine but his nefariousness is limited to a couple of obligatory gestures that are deliberate prerequisites at the behest of 3-D; which is superfluous.
Serkis is the chief humourist too in comparison to the dry Tintin. Despite eponymous billing, the quiff plays second fiddle to Haddock, who showcases swash and buckle. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are supposed to be funny as bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson but are anything but. They even look uncomfortable behind their unrecognisable facet.
Visually, it is not the treat one would expect its creators to provide (Peter Jackson supervised and will direct the sequel) when they have both pushed the cinematic boundaries time and again. Although Super 8 was an antidote was retro chic, it was a spiritual remake of ET, and now Tintin flirts with donning a fedora. Influences are essential and homages are nostalgic, providing you’re Quentin Tarantino. Not if you’re Steven Spielberg.