Over 80 years after the Belgian artist Herge first conceived him Tintin the plucky journalist-adventurer whose stories have sold over 350 million books worldwide has finally got his own big-budget Hollywood movie. The Adventures of Tintin is already a runaway hit in Europe where it opened in late October (some eight weeks ahead of its U.S. release) and where the character enjoys the bulk of his popularity. But while most Americans have never heard of Tintin they’re undoubtedly familiar with the name of Steven Spielberg who after directing 24 live-action features makes his 3D-animation debut with the rollicking action-adventure.
The film is set in the early-middle 20th century in an unnamed European town. Though his spiked widow’s peak and baby-faced visage peg him at no older than 16 the titular Tintin (Jamie Bell) is already a respected newspaper reporter and something of a neighborhood celebrity. (He also lives alone and owns a handgun -- quite an accomplished young lad indeed.) The chance purchase of a model boat leads him to a mystery involving a treasure-laden ship that was lost at sea over three centuries prior. Together with his trusty dog Snowy and a drunken sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis) he embarks on a globe-trotting adventure that pits him against a nefarious figure named Sakharine (Daniel Craig).
Like the Indiana Jones blockbusters it’s so clearly crafted to evoke The Adventures of Tintin is cutting-edge filmmaking with an old-fashioned ethos. Spielberg’s gift for spectacle hasn’t diminished one iota with his transition to animation. The inexorable march of technology and the constant bar-raising of the 3D-animated genre has schooled us to expect dazzling color and detail and Tintin dutifully delivers on that front but what impressed me most about the film is the cinematography which is nothing short of astounding. Liberated from the physical constraints of the live-action realm Spielberg and his longtime director of photography Janusz Kaminski deliver shot after shot of breathtaking scope and complexity.
Such freedom of imagination has its drawbacks of course. I grew tired of the filmmakers’ fondness for reflected images. They’re found everywhere in the film -- on mirrors windows eyeglasses bottles and anything else translucent or shiny. Moreover story is reduced to a secondary role in service of the film’s elaborate set pieces. And Tintin himself for all his exploits is an unremarkable protagonist his only distinguishing features a determined optimism and a MacGuyer-like ingenuity.
The Adventures of Tintin was made using a “performance-capture” approach of the type pioneered by Robert Zemeckis which might bring alarm to those who recall the infamously dead-eyed characters of Polar Express with disdain. The technology has come quite a long way since those rueful early days. The characters in Spielberg’s film possess a vitality and expressiveness that signal the much-maligned “uncanny valley” could soon be a thing of the past.
Set in the turbulent ‘60s each character in Across the Universe represents a different aspect to the unstable times. There’s naïve Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose eyes are opened to the possibilities of life beyond her WASPy sheltered upbringing; adventurous Jude (Jim Sturgess) who breaks away from his Liverpool working-class roots to make it as an artist in New York; and Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) a college dropout who eventually gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. There’s also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin-esque rock singer; her guitar-playing lover Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) who hails from the riot-torn streets of Detroit; and even a burgeoning lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They are all soon swept up into the '60s' emerging psychedelic anti-war and counterculture movements while Across the Universe lets the songs from one of the era’s most influential bands tell the story. But what drives the film is Jude and Lucy’s love for each other—and all you need is love right? You know you are in for something different when indie darling Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is the most recognizable star. Luckily for Across the Universe the cast of unknowns delivers--and then some. Making his film debut newcomer Sturgess is a particular standout looking very much like one of the Beatles boys in their heyday. His earnest performance as the love-struck Jude immediately hits a chord (pun intended) and he makes breaking out into a Beatles tune seem entirely natural. Wood doesn’t seem as comfortable with the vocals but the actress has a lovely voice--and of course handles Lucy’s emotional ups and downs with aplomb. All the rest of the supporting cast does a wonderful job adding their own unique reinterpretations to the songs (and yes both “Hey Jude” and “Dear Prudence” pop up). The big fun with Across the Universe however are the cameo appearances: Eddie Izzard sings “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a surreal circus ringleader; Joe Cocker sings “Come Together” alternating between a pimp bum and hippie; Salma Hayek takes nursing to a new level in a “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” number; and finally U2’s Bono sings “I Am the Walrus” as the Beat poet/counterculturist Dr. Robert. You haven’t experienced life until you've heard Bono sing “Goo goo g'joob.” In any original musical there is always something a little disconcerting when a character just breaks out into song even if it’s Julie Andrews standing on top of a mountain. But as with Moulin Rouge a character singing a song we all recognize--well that’s a little different. And honestly who doesn’t love Beatles music? Still director Julie Taymor (Frida) took a big chance creating a musical around the legacy that is Beatlemania. It must have been a daunting task searching through the annals of Beatles music to find just the right tunes for just the right moment--but her extremely inventive ways truly pay off. From Uncle Sam screaming “I Want You!” from a poster hanging in an Army recruiting office to Max and his college buddies running around campus belting out “With a Little Help from My Friends ” everything fits taking us on this journey of life love and self-enlightenment. Although Taymor’s forte clearly lies with the very wild and artistic most evident in Across the Universe’s psychedelic acid trips she also expertly highlights the stark reality of a turbulent time. Taymor is a romantic at heart though—a romantic who adores the Beatles. John Lennon would be proud.