The Adventures of Tintin

Film making is a complicated and time consuming process. I am amazed at the number of professionals it takes to put together a single movie. When it comes to the logistics of creating a film, the director more than anyone else is responsible. I’m not talking about writing, or art work, or acting, or photography, or any of a dozen other specialties. I mean the work of putting those all into motion, shepherding them through the process, and making sure that all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed. There are a hundred decisions a day and a movie means thousands of decisions. That is one of the reasons that directors since the 1960’s, are not likely to have a lot of movies out in a single year. When putting together a film in the Golden Age, the studios were factories that used assembly line type processes so a director could go from movie to movie as a hired hand. Since the end of the studio era, directors and producers have to be more than just technicians, they need to be entrepreneurs, and showmen, and hard nosed financial negotiators. Steven Spielberg, has had five years in his career in which he has put out two movies in a single calendar year. These week we get two Spielberg films within three days of each other. The last time I remember a film maker having two movie out that close to each other was in 1983 when John Badham had “War Games” and “Blue Thunder” in theaters at the same time. It happens a lot with actors, but it is rare for producers and directors.

Yesterday on Christmas we saw “War Horse”. Less than sixteen hours later we were sitting down to enjoy “The Adventures of Tintin”. These two films have very little in common when it comes to story, theme or style, yet they are both very much Spielberg films. “Tintin” is an action based adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones. This is the Saturday serial form that Spielberg grew up loving and that he brought to life with the Indy series. This new film however is based on preexisting material and I think that puts a little bit of a straightjacket on Spielberg’s usual story telling skills. It is a great Adventure story, but it lacks some of the touches that we are used to from Mr. Spielberg. Those weaknesses are a result of the source. Tintin is a comic book serial. I first encountered the character in Boy’s Life magazine back in the sixties and seventies. We would get a story serialized over a few pages and then have to wait for the next month’s issue. Dramatic development is skimpy as a consequence and the focus has to be on action.

This movie is a motion capture animation movie. This allows incredibly complex action pieces to be visualized that could never really exist in the real world. It looks great but often lacks the tension that comes from identifying with a character at risk. This is a little strange because there are a lot of animated movies that achieve this objective. This story may lack some of these qualities because it is treated as a continuing series, we are not given anything about the lead character to care about or feel a connection to. Harrison Ford could make Indiana Jones come alive just by turning and facing the audience in his first revel. Tintin is introduced through a character drawing of an animated face, and it is a scene that has no tension to it. After that, he is simply a character we follow, without ever becoming the hero we invest in. On the other hand, his dog “Snowy” does achieve some degree of emotional life that will later make what happens work better.

There is quite a bit of humor in the film, most of it in the form of slap stick visual gags. these usually involve the other main character in the story, Captain Haddock. He is the comic side-kick but also the protagonist in much of the story. These seem like complicated roles to be playing simultaneously. I liked several of his lines of humorous dialogue and some of the visual tricks, but I don’t think he can carry the story on his back and that shows where the weakness of Tintin comes in. He has no distinct characteristics except his hair. That is not enough to build a two hour movie around. Because this is the first of a proposed movie Trilogy, we may get more in the later stories, but for the moment, the archetype of the intrepid young reporter simply feels empty.

The look of the movie is one of it’s strong points. The images match the look of the comic as I vaguely remember it and it has a very early twentieth century movie vibe. I especially liked the title sequence which was very reminiscent of Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” opening titles. The John Williams score is also very effective and it feels more jazzy than orchestral in nature which does work for the movie. It’s not that I’m disappointed in the movie, it is simply that I wanted it to be more emotionally involving. It stimulates and entertains but I never felt connected to it the way I have with most Spielberg pictures.

War Horse

A bit over a year ago, we heard Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, on the Mark and Brian Radio show. He had just come back to L.A. from a visit to New York. He could not stop talking about a play he had seen there which was done with puppets. He did not reveal any plot line or discuss the actors performances, he was simply entranced by the story and the stage craft.I happened to mention it to my daughter Amanda and I was surprised to find that she had heard about it. The play is called, “War Horse”. The reason she knew about it was the previous year in her cinema class on the movies of Steven Spielberg, the day they had Spielberg himself in, her professor was promoting this play to Spielberg as the next movie he ought to make. Now having seen the film, I can understand the enthusiasm he had for Spielberg to work with this material. It’s the story of a boy and his horse, set against the background of World War One. There are quaint vistas of early twentieth century England, the countryside of France, and horrific battle scenes that punctuate the story. This is Spielberg territory.

This movie is simply beautiful to look at. I am sure that the cinematography will be long remembered for displaying the rich countrysides in a variety of European locations. There are some dramatically lit night time battle scenes set in the trenches of both sides in the war, and a disturbingly dark and visually discrete sequence set in the barbed wire of no man’s land between the trenches. As the action shifts from a farm to a battlefield on another farm and then plunges us into the woods, the lighting is used to show location and mood very effectively. There are also some tense and dramatic scenes set in a windmill that also show the cinematography here is not just noticeable because the locations are incredibly beautiful. Of course what will be easily scoffed at by detractors of the film will be the golden tinted skies over Devon England, and the rich colors of the land that the tenant farmers are trying to plow to eek out a living. The poster shows you some of the beauty that Spielberg will inevitably be criticized for lingering over in a harsh dramatic story. It’s as if some people want to sweep aside the craft that made movies from the forties and fifties so vibrantly colorful. I remember people bitching about how gorgeous “The Color Purple” was while all the rape and wife beating was going on. I really think mood can be enhanced not only by highlighting the dark areas of life but also by contrasting those bright spots with the dark events going on in that world.

So, it is a horse story but it is not “National Velvet” or “The Black Stallion”. The title tells you right away that this is a violent story of war that this horse is going to be a part of. There are heroes and villains on both sides of this war. None of the villains are deliberately cruel, rather they are brutally cynical and rationalist about the events that go on in the story. The only character that I thought was clearly evil, was the landlord introduced in the first part of the movie while events are still set in England. After the war story begins, the cruelty is not of the malicious kind from a “Snidely Whiplash” type character. The terrible things that we see are part of the nature of war, and so the experience feels more universal to us. It often comes down to how people relate to animals. If you can’t imagine a bond between a person and an animal that is emotionally deep, then you are not going to be as strongly effected by the fate that befalls many of the animals serving in this war. Of course you are also not going to be able to relate to this movie either.

I found the relationship between the humans and the horses in the story to be very real. The farmers connect to the horses in a different way than the soldiers do, but regardless of side, soldiers still find something to connect with about the horse. There is also a very big sub plot concerning the relationship of two horses to one another. I imagine this was the hook that made the puppetry on stage work so well. Here it felt slightly underdeveloped, probably in part because of how expansive the story turns out to be. The two most emotional scenes in the movie from my point of view, concern the emotional sacrifice that one horse wants to make for another, and the suspension of hostility between soldiers that see the horse as a truly wondrous animal. The second scene was the one that everyone in our group was talking about after the movie. This film is rated PG-13, but it is a tough PG-13 rating. There are some deeply disturbing moments that do not show blood and guts but do tune us into the costs of war in emotionally scarring ways. so be warned.

We are all probably a little jaded sometimes by animal stories. The sentimentality seems like a cheap way to tap into our emotions and give us a feeling that has not been earned. To be honest, that works for me most of the time, but I felt like Spielberg was holding back on making use of the natural inclination of many to attache to an animal. I thought the final emotions were earned by the story telling and not just by the setting and characters. I would love to see how this story plays out on stage with puppets standing in for the horses. Until the play makes its way out west her, I guess I can live with the fine film that Steven Spielberg has made out of the play. Some of the images will live in my head a long time, they were not always pretty, but they sure looked amazing as I was watching.