The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse
Steven Spielberg double-dips with a couple of Christmas blockbusters
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cast: the voices of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
If you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg (and every filmgoer must be to some degree), then you’re going to find your Christmas stocking overflowing this week. Working like a sweaty elf in Santa’s factory, Mr. Spielberg has delivered not one but two feature films for Christmas.
First up is a computer-animated version of the much-beloved Tintin comic books. The comic-strips-turned-graphic-novels by Belgian artist Hergé have delighted young adults since the ’30s. Though ubiquitous in Europe, they’re somewhat less well-known here in the States. Nonetheless, Spielberg has long shared a dream with New Zealand-based writer/director/producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) to bring Tintin to life on the big screen. The two share producing credit on this first film, and Jackson will allegedly take the directing reins for the second two films in a proposed trilogy.
The Adventures of Tintin steals most of its inspiration from Hergé’s most famous story arc, The Secret of the Unicorn. The screenplay—which combines the efforts of Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who”), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block)—also folds in much of The Crab With the Golden Claws and nips the ending off Red Rackham’s Treasure. That doesn’t appear to leave much meat on the bone for the film’s sequel, but that’s a problem for another day. People who grew up reading the comic books will be pleasantly surprised at how reverential the story is to Hergé’s originals. In addition to the recognizable plotlines, little in-jokes and character cameos spill over from other classic stories.
The motion-capture animation is better than in previous incarnations (the abominable Polar Express, for example). The film doesn’t try to replicate Hergé’s famous ligne claire (clean line) art style—though there is a solid wink and a nod toward it at the beginning. Instead, animators have constructed eerily human models with exaggerated cartoon features. The result isn’t quite perfect (some characters look kinda like bobbleheads), but it does avoid the “uncanny valley” effect, which renders too-realistic animated creations frightening as hell.
Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) is perfect as the voice of our plucky boy reporter caught up in a pre-World War II treasure hunt involving a ship’s model, a legendary pirate attack and a drunken sea captain (king of motion capture Andy Serkis from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong). Spielberg and company keep the action whipping along at a considerably quicker pace than Hergé’s somewhat genteel originals. Hopping from action sequence to action sequence while spinning its way around the globe, the film plays out like an animated version of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
Some viewers may find the high-tech animation superfluous. Almost the entire film could have been shot live-action with little appreciable difference. But there are moments—a brilliantly choreographed slapstick sequence in a ship’s bunk and a madcap pirate raid on the high seas—when The Adventures of Tintin fully embraces its comic book roots. Kids of all ages should count themselves lucky to get caught up in its old-fashioned sense of fun and adventure.
War Horse (2011)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan
Coming immediately on the heels of Tintin is Spielberg’s second feature, War Horse. Adapted from the popular novel and the Tony-winning stage play, this epic drama follows the adventures of a young lad and his loyal horse. Albert (newbie Jeremy Irvine) is our human hero, the compassionate and tenacious teenage son of poor English sharecroppers (Peter Mullan and Emily Watson). When Dad, in a fit of drunken pride, brings home a thoroughbred instead of a much-needed draft horse, Albert takes it upon himself to train the horse—named Joey—how to pull a plow. Against all odd, he succeeds. Unfortunately, just as the family looks like it might break its cycle of poverty, World War I erupts. Unable to pay the bills, Dad sells Joey to a cavalry officer. The officer, moved by Albert’s love for Joey, promises to bring the horse back after the war.
What follows is a sometimes disjointed series of adventures as poor Joey passes from one owner to the next amid the chaos of combat. The story seems custom-built for Spielberg, who can tuck the “boy and his dog” sentiments of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial amid the harrowing war drama of Saving Private Ryan. There are high points, to be sure. (A cavalry charge in a wheat field deftly encapsulates the moment when war went from a gentlemanly pursuit to a brutal business.) But cutting Albert out of the picture for a good two-thirds of the runtime messes with our loyalties. Yes, we’re meant to sympathize with Joey as he gallops from the English forces to a cute little French girl to the cruel German military to No Man’s Land. I don’t have a problem sympathizing with a horse. It’s just that, toward the end of the film, Albert jumps back into the story and we’re confused as to who our protagonist is supposed to be.
War Horse is beautifully filmed, robustly executed and determined to entertain. But it’s not as solid as it should be. Something falls short. Though it started out as a children’s novel, Spielberg’s version is too dark, violent and lengthy for young kids. (The 8-year-old girl in the seat next to me wept almost nonstop.) For adults, the story vignettes are too brief, too formulaic and populated by too many thinly sketched characters to fully engage. What was mesmerizingly simple on page and elegantly allegorical on stage seems disappointingly one-dimensional on screen. But if Spielberg falls short of perfection, he still manages to create an elemental, highly cinematic melodrama about the evils of war, the bonds of friendship and the cuteness of animals.