If I do say so myself, some of the best performances I have ever given are forever lost and were witnessed only by an audience of two (and, gee, I sure hope they back me up on that!). I refer of course to bedtime reading to my two boys. The various Tin Tin books were a personal favorite as they allowed me to voice the titular boy reporter, the crusty Captain Haddock, absent-minded Professor Calculus, detectives Thomson and Thompson, and even Snowy. Like millions of others, then, we had a personal stake in the current screen adaptation by Steven Spielberg.
To say that we are disappointed would be an overstatement. This is a perfectly entertaining family film, appropriate in every way to its audience and the needs of the moment. And, as the saying goes, it ain’t Shakespeare.
But it is Spielberg. A genius of action, suspense and horror, he has been capable of cooking up near perfect confections when he is smart enough to stay away from “significance” or sentiment, which times have been depressingly rare. To my mind, he’s only hit the bull’s eye on a handful of occasasions: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan. Of the rest of his films, most range from forgettable to bad, generally because Spielberg seems unacquainted with that ancient Greek dictum: “Know thyself”. His two heroes (Hitchcock and Disney) both had the good sense to know what sort of films they were making, and for whom. Speilberg is always stepping out of his element to express “ideas” and “feelings”, which are just not his metier. But when he sticks to thrills, magic happens. This is why we had high hopes for Tin Tin, which contains nothing but colorful adventure.
While, as I said, the picture is fine, it does stop short of the Spielbergian tour de force you might hope for given the source material. Based on three Tin Tin books, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), it gives us plenty of chase scenes, gunplay, kidnapping, and twisty-turny mystery. What it never does do is take that extra step we come to look for from Speilberg. At his best, he takes us on a ride we’ve never been on before, and strings it out like a merciless roller coaster ride, until we are begging for mercy by the end. There’s none of that here, although there were several opportunities for him to do so. At one point, the heroes are heading into a bank of thunderheads in their little airplane. For a second it looks like we are in for a thrill ride, but he blows it off. Similarly a long chase scene through a Moroccan port city (the film’s climax) feels perfunctory, with perhaps one or two nice surprises, rather than the two dozen we would rightly expect. This is despite the fact that the film is animated (consider the possibilities) and in 3-D (the potential of which is not really explored). My working theory is that, because Spielberg was simultaneously directing another film (War Horse) when he made this one, he stretched himself thin, and didn’t go as deeply into this one as he might have. (I may have to stay away from War Horse for some time, though, reeking as it does of “significance” and sentiment).
To his credit, Spielberg leaves in some of the politically incorrect elements: Tin Tin is a pistol-packing teenager, and Captain Haddock an unreformable drunkard. In true modern Hollywood style, however, the script steers clear of the slapstick potential of Haddock’s predilection, and the script in general is not as funny as it ought to be. The fabric of the books contain as much comedy as adventure. Speilberg’s comic touch here is light to nonexistent, given the potential. And of course he falls in line with the sick modern impulse to humanize cartoon characters. What bizarre freaks did Hollywood market-test this trend on, that they think we want to see the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat played by comedians in make-up, Under Dog as an actual canine, and Scooby Doo with human eyes? The charm of Herge’s drawings is missing here in favor of semi-human 3-D people-oids, with boring-ass actor voices, rather than lively, funny character voices one wants and expects from such material.
Yet, still, it’s not by any stretch “bad”. It’s a wonderful movie to send kids to without worrying they are going to come home with their minds full of garbage. And that’s rare enough, so The Adventures of Tin Tin has my endorsement. (Besides, it sets us up for a sequel involving a Caribbean treasure hunt. This one feels like it ends before the true climax — perhaps it occurs in the sequel)