“Nothing needs justification less than entertainment, but a movie planned only to entertain that fails has no justification.” That’s Pauline Kael, in one of those many bon mots of hers that seeks intuitive agreement over critical response. As with other of her grand pronouncements, my reply, upon actual reflection, is “Speak for yourself.” Her language about planning aside, the sentence carries the implication of a position she took throughout her career: that there are movies that do nothing but entertain. Myself, I’ve never seen one. From Tsai Ming-liang to James Cameron, a movie that entertains always carries with it—brazenly or subtly—further elements of fascination, things worth parsing beyond the issue of pleasure. I won’t argue that Steven Spielberg’s 2011 CGI film The Adventures of Tintin contains a story of any profundity, nor that it’s a significant intervention in the culture, nor that it brought me to tears. But it’s a sensory delight, and I take it as an article of faith that one of the key obligations of movie criticism is the interrogation of the senses.
The Adventures of Tintin is a movie that hits the ground running and barely lets up. With the opening credits sequence we jump into a formula that will follow throughout: we’re given clarity, then disorientation, then reorientation and a respite of stability before being swept back off balance. Our titular hero (Jamie Bell) and his pooch-partner Snowy, of the famed Hergé comics, appear in the movie as small but distinct figures in the frame, and they bounce, run, jump and fall into various entrapments. Sequence designer Dennis Yoo creates a logic that’s more graphic than anything else, as in the following bit of business: Our hero lies flat against a green background in a clearly readable image. Next the virtual camera pulls out to show him in the same position, visible through the side of a truck hitch the same shade of red. We then pull back further for a very wide perspective as the truck travels down a steep, tree-lined road. Finally comes the humdinger, as the “camera” swoops into the back of the cab, facing our hero from the rear as he bangs on the compartment door and then kicks the rear doors open; we are again drawn back, and then finally around to a long shot profile of the abandoned truck as the duo roll to a stop on the road behind it. Got that?
The procession of shifting perspectives is dazzling, and as we move into the story proper, with its motion capture animation, the stakes will increase—but not too much. Again, the story here is not exactly serious stuff, and there are other things that conspire to make the drama so light. Firstly, there’s Spielberg’s customary warmth, carrying the dual and paradoxical senses of childish indulgence and patriarchal assurance. And then there’s the use of 3D, imposing but not radical. The director and his team bring a tremendous amount of lateral and diagonal movement to the layering of depth, requiring us to madly scan the compositions: we interrogate motion on the run. It’s a challenge, but a circumscribed one, as Spielberg, nice guy that he is, always lands us on our feet. Our eyes are put to work, but always with a clear end in sight, and part of the pleasure of the film—of most mainstream films, I guess—is knowing we’ll get there and wondering how. This happens again and again in The Adventures of Tintin, on the level of scene, sequence and single image. Disorientation is constant, and constantly allayed.
One of the frustrating things about discussing animated films accurately is the inadequacy of our standard terms. Scare quotes are the easiest way to go: we can talk about “camera movement” but not camera movement, “long takes” but not long takes. So let’s just say that this is a film of the unified image: the space, such as it is, is preserved in wholeness at dazzling length. Throughout the movie there’s sense of a juggler holding his balls in the air—a perception of protraction, delicacy, and risk that likely contrasts with the slow, deliberate effort required to make such images.
This and the other elements pile up, dovetailing with each other to thrilling effect: there is virtuoso “camera movement,” a shifting mise en scène that is always threatening to lose its many points of balance and collapse; and the three dimensions of vision. It’s hard to parse a 3D experience I had years ago (though I saw the movie twice in theatres); memory and the traces of the layering process on 2D home video will have to do. I can first fall back on generalization: the problem I found with pre-digital 3D was the obvious hierarchy it placed on the image. We were told, quite crudely, to care more about the Creature from the Black Lagoon, as he bulged out towards us, than anything else that may have caught our eye. There was often redundancy, with the dominant contrast being highlighted even though we’d all be bound to stare at it anyway because of its foregrounding in the composition and, usually, the narrative. Contemporary 3D has allowed for a more incremental application of depth—a more democratic, less pushy, less obvious layering of the image.
In The Adventures of Tintin, this gradation allows the horizontal reveals, the long-range pullbacks and the dozens of exacting, precariously balanced elements of the frame to pass through one more powerful element. The challenge of vision in the movie is inflated to near bursting point by 3D, which adds a vertiginous, roller-coaster vibe to the viewing experience. Even the more modest moments contain the thrill of dizzy movement, and the virtual aping of the look of movies shot with a wide-angle lens certainly accentuates this. When we see Tintin reflected in his glass cabinet as he enters his apartment, and the viewpoint pivots to face him directly as he moves across the front room, we’re traveling through as much space as the technology and the story will allow. It’s the difference between old-school and contemporary 3D: a restricted, glaring emphasis vs. a more thorough amplification of space—a layering that invites parsing instead of compromising it. 3D in The Adventures of Tintin makes for a major imposition on our usual viewing habits, and being put to work like this is, for me at least, pretty thrilling. There are simple scenes, slow scenes, shot-reverse-shot dialogue aesthetics. But they’re few in number, and in proportion to the showstoppers they’re almost negligible: Spielberg’s movie is almost off the charts in its action. It’s the most kinetic of his films that I’ve seen, the most indulgent of our senses—and with this director that’s really saying something.
The indulgence approaches the bursting point in a climax of the familiar kind: an exotic-locale smash-up chase, with Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) giving chase to villain Sackharine (Daniel Craig) through a Middle Eastern town. Eventually the chase becomes sustained in one unbroken image containing our heroic trio, the villain and his henchman, a falcon with treasure in his beak, and a dislodged house, all sweeping in and out of the frame as they careen through cavernous streets, swoop through houses, and rise to dizzying heights from street level and back again. The treasure items are two paper scrolls, and they change hands from the villain to Tintin to Snowy to the falcon and back to our hero—this all in the midst of explosions, near-fatal pratfalls, death-defying leaps and other acts of wonderful implausibility. What 3D adds is a counterpoint of spatial realism to outrageous action; one of the best things a genre film can do is bring the outlandish and the real closer together, and in The Adventures of Tintin this dynamic is right there at the core of our vision. That’s what I call entertaining.