By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Where have you been all our lives, Tintin? At least American lives, the vast majority of whom never knew you and your fabulous dog Snowy existed. Our pop culture drowns in comic book ink, but the Belgian artist Herge's 82-year-old Tintin series slipped by somehow. Now Steven Spielberg displays on screen what we missed on painted pages.
The Adventures of Tintin — Spielberg's first animated film ever — is constantly surprising for many reasons, the lack of familiarity a key one. Close behind is the director conquering chronic issues of motion-capture animation, in regard to how real in appearance humans as cartoons should be. The dead-eyes syndrome of The Polar Express and Beowulf isn't here, and physiques are deftly exaggerated.
Who is Tintin? The short answer is young Indiana Jones, so it makes sense that Spielberg first imagined this project while filming Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tintin is a boyish journalist whose beat is the world, exposing crime and corruption with intrepid little Snowy at his side. By land, sea and air, Tintin is drawn to mystery like a Hardy Boy, and loves a good cliffhanger.
Even during down time, mystery finds him. The movie begins with Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) purchasing a wooden ship model for a few dollars then immediately being offered small fortunes by people he beat to it. Why are they so interested in this ship? When the model is stolen from his apartment, Tintin and Snowy are determined to find out.
The solution unfolds at breakneck pace, through several exotic countries and numerous close calls. The first leg finds the duo shanghaied on a rusty cargo ship with boozy Captain Haddock (mo-cap master Andy Serkis) fighting off mutiny. Haddock's ancestry has much to do with the mystery, but he can't remember details after drinking away so many brain cells. His alcoholism and Tintin's occasional gunplay make this a more mature 'toon than usual.
Also on the trail is Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who knows there are in fact three models of the Golden Unicorn ship, each containing pieces of a sunken treasure map. Tintin recovers his piece through a fanciful subplot concerning a pickpocket and a pair of Clouseau-style detectives (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg). There is plenty of deducing to do between the slam-bang action sequences.
Like his pal Martin Scorsese did with Hugo, Spielberg uses 3-D effects chiefly to embellish depth of vision, not in-your-face thrills. The Adventures of Tintin is lovely to behold, with the "natural" lighting of desktop lamps throwing atmospheric shadows, and speedier scenes appearing more dangerous, as they should. A seaplane chase is a highlight topped only by the mirage of a pirate ship sailing over sand dunes.
The latter image propels The Adventures of Tintin to a past yet parallel storyline of Sakharine and Haddock's ancestors, and a what's-next finale guaranteeing a sequel. For once that ploy doesn't seem undeserved. In a movie year of more than two dozen animated films, this and Rango tower over all others. Welcome to America, Tintin. It's great getting to know you.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.