Thursday, June 30, 2016

Theory Thursday: "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011) is Underrated

Scene from The Adventures of Tintin
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The BFG is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: The Adventures of Tintin is underrated.

When it comes to Steven Spielberg, it's hard to really say much that's bad about him. His work over the past 40 years has made a great impact on cinema, and even his outright duds are few and far between. So when choosing to make a Theory Thursday piece with a controversial opinion on the director, it is hard to think of anything, especially since I already addressed my issues with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. So where do I go that's against the norm? Do I share why I don't like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial or explain why 1941 is underrated? These are all valid topics, but none feel right when you pair it with a children's film like The BFG. Yes, they are the same director and thus the same ideals on display, but it would only feel right to address a film that falls into his camp of titles geared at younger audiences. For that, I am choosing to express my unbridled love of The Adventures of Tintin: his last genuine family film prior to this weekend.

When compiling my personal Top 10 of Spielberg, I have trouble not putting this adaptation of Herge on the list. I admit that it could be that the magic of his sci-fi films don't connect with me as much as most, but there's something at the core that is inevitably genuine. It's a film so rich with adventure and humor that I have trouble not being mesmerized by its magic. After all, it has the typical tropes of a Spielberg movie. The father figure is absent, replaced by an alcoholic. There's the grand scope, and a sense of adventure. Most of all, it features the technical prowess that he has always been thought to be the best at (James Cameron notwithstanding). If anything, The Adventures of Tintin is an achievement in animation as well as a sign of the director getting his juices flowing again with one of his liveliest films in eons. Yes, I liked War Horse (which he released the same day) and Bridge of Spies, but I long a bit for the fun side of a director who made it not safe to go in the water and has convinced us of this fact for decades since.

To suggest that this film is underrated is to more assess its placement in Spielberg's canon. Yes, he has done better. Schindler's List definitely ranks among cinema's greatest achievements. However, its value seems to be forgotten in conversation in favor of E.T. or the more nauseating and self-indulgent Hook. Even in casual passing, it seems like nobody acknowledges that the lone animated film on his director resume is actually his. It could be that the long awaited sequel from Peter Jackson hasn't come to fruition in five years, but it also suffers from a slumping score on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. It doesn't have much going for it, as it was even disqualified at The Oscars in the Best Animated Film category simply because of its motion capture technology applied to the technique. It did get an Oscar nomination, but not really much of a legacy came with it.

To understand why it's genuinely great, one must understand the mastermind behind it. Spielberg has been attempting to adapt Herge's series "The Adventures of Tintin" for decades before finally achieving it in 2011. It was a story about a boy detective who goes on wild adventures. If that sounds familiar, it's because the stories were inadvertently an inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the whole Indiana Jones action hero thing. While it's easier to see the influence of Lawrence of Arabia in that film, readers of Herge's work will see the curious nature of boys pop up from time to time, giving the film a life that has essentially made it such an irresistible masterpiece. The enthusiasm hasn't gone anywhere, and instead would evolve to include help from Jackson and his crew at WETA. Considering that The Adventures of Tintin ironically came three years after Spielberg's most reviled Indiana Jones entry, it makes the comparisons oh so much harder to miss.

The film immediately plays like a throwback to old spy stories with an opening credits that also includes one of composer John Williams' best works in awhile. The film feels appropriate for the boy detective, who sneaks around corners and is always getting into trouble. You feel the intrigue in the same way that you felt it for Catch Me If You Can almost a decade before. It's a fun romp, and there hasn't been a chance to see Tintin in action with Snowy yet. Considering that the animation in the opening credits is closer to traditional, it's hard to predict what comes next, but what does is a beautiful film that thankfully avoids the problems of uncanny valley by portraying realism in ways that only Pixar has done better. If Spielberg cornered the market on animated movies, I wouldn't be mad.

The fact is that you can see Herge in early Spielberg. In this, you can be forgiven for mistaking the cues as being pure Spielbergian. The camera wanders around, looking for clues often without its protagonist. We get to see Snowy running comically through the streets. It plays to the adventurous side, often allowing the film to be silly to keep the young audience interested. With several whimsical and verbally gymnastic characters (played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), the film has a sense of urgency and purpose that makes it into a fun environment, even if the story isn't afraid to go into dark territory. In fact, while one can see odes to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the transition shots are an uncanny ode to Lawrence of Arabia in ways that the director hasn't been able to achieve with his live action work.

Beyond all of this, here's the genuine reason that The Adventures of Tintin is an underrated gem. While most parents would be keen to show their kids Raiders of the Lost Ark (mine sure did), there's still that gruesome and adult side that may be unpleasant for the younger ones. What is found in the 2011 film is everything that made the Indiana Jones films so great, but edited into a family friendly format. Nothing is lost beyond "disturbing elements" and instead replaced with some of the most ambitious animation of its time. The scene where they chase a falcon through the streets may be entirely animated, but it's a breathtaking shot thanks to its ability to look like a long take. It has the spontaneity and energy that makes for exciting cinema. If nothing else, Spielberg's turn from adult to children hasn't changed at all. The sense of wonder can still be found in every single frame.

I admit that the director has made a lot of great movies that kids would love. Jurassic Park seems very obvious. He enjoys putting them in peril and filling their head with imagination. I am hoping that The BFG can use the techniques that he applied to The Adventures of Tintin and make it into a perfect blend of live action and CG animation. If nothing else, I hope that he keeps the wonder and magic that makes his films work. I know that he hasn't really hit any weak point in his career - especially this late. However, I don't know that he gets the credit he deserves for being such a universal (no pun intended) auteur of cinema and bringing audiences together in such fulfilling ways. The Adventures of Tintin may not strike some as quintessential Spielberg, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone calling his family friendly work good without it.

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