Hollywood has done a dynamite job p!ssing all over my beloved childhood heroes the past couple years. If Frank Miller’s charmless, inept and gratuitously violent “Sin City”-ification of Will Eisner’s seminal Sunday comic series “The Spirit” wasn’t bad enough, AMC’s despicable betrayal of Patrick McGoohan’s presciently paranoid spy series “The Prisoner” actually left me feeling furious that such a precious and beloved cult property could have been so carelessly handed over to hacks who didn’t even grasp the central point and message of its creators.
Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s big-budget adaptation of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s long-running (1929-1976) European graphic novel series “The Adventures of Tintin” isn’t quite as bad as either of those creative abortions, but it’s still a crushing disappointment for a four-decade Tintin fan who’s been eagerly awaiting the family film since it was announced in 2007.
Like the other projects that skewered my youthful dreams, “The Adventures of Tintin” suffers from the influence of a generic Hollywood checklist of “Things Which Must Be Included” that pretty much derails the movie in the last half hour – a spectacular (and spectacularly destructive) chase through an ancient Arab town, followed shortly thereafter by a lengthy and dull battle between massive mechanical cranes; none of this stuff is in any of the books, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t feel completely perfunctory and passionless, as if Spielberg and Jackson didn’t trust the source material that they allegedly love so well but didn’t really know what to do with it to take it to another level, either.
The whole picture – which, when publicity is factored in will run in the vicinity of a $200 million budget – feels like a misfire, and the foundation for that failure was the creative decision to produce the movie using “performance capture” (or “motion capture”) animation, in which real-life actors are filmed and then 2D or 3D computer animation is digitally overlaid to flesh out the characters in whatever form the creators prefer – Jackson used it to great success for Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, which mixed one motion capture character with a collection of real human beings, but other strictly performance capture animated films have been far less successful: Robert Zemeckis, after an early financial success with “The Polar Express,” has pretty much tanked his career losing money for big studios while pursuing motion capture – “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Mars Needs Moms” all lost money, with the last being the biggest bomb of 2011, according to this week’s New York Times article on Hollywood’s lousy last year.
Motion capture looks just real enough to be a step beyond traditional animation, but far enough from actually simulating real people to be a turn-off. I was surprised to find there is actually a term for this: The Uncanny Valley. In short, the Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis that the closer to realistic a robot or computer-generated object or visual comes to reality without actually perfecting reality, the more the person viewing the replications is repelled.
To me, it comes down to the eyes. All the eyes of the characters in “The Adventures of Tintin” are empty and soulless, and it makes the movie feel the same way. There are a ton of close-ups, and you can see faint freckles, skin pores and nostril hair that mirror reality to a T(intin), but the eyes remain blanks. The movie itself might be in 3D, but the core of its characters is barely one.
It reminded me of one of the dead-on criticisms I once read of the original “Blues Brothers” movie: all the best actors, and particularly comedians, use their eyes to communicate with the audience as much as their voices. In “The Blues Brothers” movies, the critic said two of their generation’s greatest comics kept some of the most powerful forces in their creative arsenal covered with sunglasses for the entire movie (yes, nit-pickers, I know: save for one short John Belushi sequence with Carrie Fisher).
“The Adventures of Tintin” is the same way. The eyes of all the characters are lifeless, dead, animatronic abominations. So, for all the flurry and fury of movement and action and adventure in the film, there is nothing at the heart of it. And while zombies are very popular culturally right now, I don’t think this is what moviegoers are looking for.
I suspect “The Adventures of Tintin” will be the last motion-capture film made by Hollywood for some time, possibly ever. All the other films that were in production have been scuttled – the most high-profile being Zemeckis’s remake of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” – and if the Spielberg/Jackson tandem can’t save it, it’s unlikely anybody can.
Tinseltown’s execs are no doubt watching the box office returns of “Tintin” very closely – though it’s already gone gangbusters worldwide with more than $240 million, the American opening was very tepid. Can you sustain a nine-figure franchise without American buy-in? With the egos that run Hollywood, does the town even want to?