<i>The Adventures of Tintin</i>: Raiders of the Lost Unicorn

There's a clever gag early on in The Adventures of Tintin that effectively passes the baton from the title character's comic-book origins in the 1930s to his 21st century incarnation as the hero of a lavish animated blockbuster. In the scene, investigative journalist/globetrotting adventurer Tintin (played here by Jamie Bell via the magic of motion capture technology) is sitting with his back to the audience, having his picture drawn by a flea market street artist. The illustrator puts the finishing touches on the portrait and hands it over to his subject, saying proudly, "I think I've captured your likeness." With that, Tintin turns towards the camera and we see the character's past and present in the same frame. On the canvas is a sketch of Tintin as Belgian artist Hergé first drew him all those years ago. Next to that is the version of the character the animators at Weta Digital -- the New Zealand effects house operated by Peter Jackson, one of the primary creative forces behind this new movie, along with its director Steven Spielberg -- have come up with. While these two faces aren't precisely mirror images of each other, the mo-cap figure is still recognizably Tintin. In a single shot, the filmmakers convincingly lift this iconic character off the two-dimensional comics page and turn him into a walking, talking movie star.

Granted, that particular gag will play best with those viewers who grew up reading Hergé's comics -- a population that's decidedly smaller in America compared to the rest of the world. But you don't have to be a die-hard Tintin fanboy to enjoy the rest of this spirited adventure, which rockets along like an old movie serial, much like Spielberg's seminal 1981 romp, Raiders of the Lost Ark. With its light-hearted sense of humor and relentless pace, this is the first movie Spielberg has made in some time that actually merits comparison to the first Indiana Jones film... and that includes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Freed from the portentous metaphors and heavy-handed sentimentality that have marred Spielberg's last few mainstream blockbusters (think War of the Worlds rather than Munich), The Adventures of Tintin has no goal beyond taking the audience on a jaunty, fun-filled ride. It also happens to be one of the best examples yet of the creative possibilities promised by motion capture. If the abject failure of Mars Needs Moms earlier this year seemed to signal mo-cap's demise, Tintin shows exactly how dazzling the technology can be when employed by a real film artist.For Tintin's inaugural Hollywood adventure, the film's trio of writers -- including Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish -- have mashed up two of Hergé's most-loved books, The Crab With the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn into one storyline. (A few bits of Red Rackham's Treasure have been stirred in as well.) The plot kicks in almost immediately, with Tintin purchasing a lovely model ship at the same flea market where he had his portrait drawn. Little does he suspect that this miniature vessel contains a secret treasure that will send him and his trusty canine companion, Snowy (hands down the movie's most crowd-pleasing character), around the world, from their home in Belgium to the Sahara Desert to a port city in Morocco. Along the way, they befriend a fiercely loyal, but perpetually drunk career sailor named Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and square off against a wealthy man of mystery who currently calls himself Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig). They're also periodically aided... uh, make that hampered, in their investigation by the bumbling detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, respectively).

Where Tintin could be improved somewhat is in the transitions between its big-scale set-pieces. Although the movie already clocks in at an economical 107 minutes, there's more pruning that could have been done, like dropping an amusing, but unnecessary subplot involving Thomson and Thompson's search for a pickpocket and cutting back on an elaborate pirate yarn that Haddock spins for Tintin. And for the next movie -- which, if greenlit, will be directed by Jackson -- it would be nice if the writers showcased more of Tintin's investigative skills. Sure, he's exceptionally skilled at getting himself and his pals out of tight spots, but he's got a good intellect to go along with his acrobatic and combat abilities.

But man oh man, do those set-pieces deliver. Throughout the movie, Spielberg uses the almost limitless freedom offered by animation to stage some spectacularly thrilling moments, from Snowy pursuing a truck carrying an unconscious Tintin through the Belgian streets to Haddock and Tintin trying to refuel their seaplane in mid-air while a thunderstorm rages all around them. This all builds to the movie's best sequence, a beautifully choreographed chase through the Moroccan city that starts with Tintin pursuing Sakharine on a motorcycle and ends with him zip-lining over the rooftops, with lots of hairpin turns and last-minute escapes along the way. Oh yeah... and he's working in animation, Spielberg is able to "film" the whole scene in a single, unbroken take. It's hands down one of the most impressive and rousing pieces of action -- live action or animated -- that I've seen all year. (I should mention that the PG-rated film is ideal for young viewers as well as the set-pieces are action- packed, but entirely blood-free. My 4-year-old was engaged throughout and had no trouble keeping up with the plot.) Just as that opening scene with the street artist promises, Spielberg's film honors Tintin's past while writing an exciting new chapter in his ongoing adventures.

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