Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

"Adventures in the Uncanny Valley"
"Spielberg Straight Up, No Chaser"

Everyone knows how dynamic and visceral a film-maker Steven Spielberg is.  At times, he can even approach overkill, bouncing along on his little adventures, then, happily, sailing right over a cliff.  Take 1941, for example, or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, both films of such excess that they immediately inspired ridicule.  That exuberance tries the patience of many film-goers who want the director who features the Moon in his corporate logos to come back down to Earth. The term "nuking the fridge" was derisively created for the fourth Indy film (as if credulity hadn't already been crossed in the  series before...)

But, imagine (if you will...or even can) Spielberg without any constraints.  I'm talking the regular constraints of film-making, the type that keep things down to the possible and even legal.  Things like time, budget, light, focal-lengths, physics, natural laws (like gravity), and even the constraints for safety imposed by studio legalities and The Humane Society.  Take those away—take them all away—and imagine what sort of film Steven Spielberg would make.

Scary thought, isn't it?

Now, with Peter Jackson producing, Spielberg has made his first "Avatar"-style movie, with mostly motion-capture technology, but virtually all CGI—there's no angle he can't shoot from, no perspective he can't take, no transition he can't achieve...whatever Spielberg can think, he can put on the screen, with no compromises and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (based on three of the many Hergé books), shows what an unfettered Spielberg is capable of...and it is amazing.

And a bit headache-inducing, which I imagine would happen even without 3-D (the format I saw it in).  It even approached the stage where my brain started to shut down (a phenomenon I've noticed in myself with very few movies, except for those directed by Terry Gilliam), a kind of movie-narcolepsy where I have to fight sleep, so intense and detail-filled is the movie-going experience.*  Fortunately, Spielberg is so intent on making his 3-D cartoon a movie-movie, that it's quite easy to put oneself in the mode that this is happening through photographic means—only shinier, and with less dust.

So, the story of the Belgy reporter (voiced by Jamie Bellfollowing clues and bad guys to all points of the world, trying to find the answer to the riddles of a model ship he bought at a street vendor's (and why unscrupulous people like chief villain Rackham—voiced interestingly by Daniel Craig**—might want to acquire it, by any means necessary).

And it's all done in a semi-realistic style (although tribute to Hergé's cartoony style is paid early in the film).  Things are made to look real, even if the human forms are semi-cartoony.  That's worked better for Pixar, whose human characters have always looked better the further they diverged from realism.  Here it's a bit of a problem, especially early on in the proceedingsthere's a deadness to the eyes,*** what has been identified as "The Uncanny Valley"—the point at which, when trying to create a human simulation, the human brain (that is, a "real" human brain) rejects it, and even may be horrified by it.  Examples that the film industry have taken notice of have been audiences negative reaction to the CGI baby in Pixar's first full short "Tin Toy," and the reaction of test audiences to a first-draft version of the human-looking Princess Fiona in the first ShrekThe learning curve is high in Tintin, and very quickly the issue is side-stepped with squints and off-camera looks, but it's there, initially (and, to be fair, Hergé never gave Tintin or his other characters eyes, but round pools of india ink. Imagine the horror if they did a motion-capture movie of "L'il Orphan Annie?").  But soon, events overtake our heroes, and we no longer have time to look them in the eye—it's tough enough just trying to follow them.

And that is a case of pure, undistilled Spielbergia.  Enjoy.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a Saturday Matinee.

* It's hard for me to explain what is going on (or even admit to it) when this happens. Partially, it might be because I'm not thinking much or analyzing what is happening, but just letting the images wash over me without much interpretation.  When a movie makes me think—for good or ill—I can't fall asleep.  But when there's nothing to really interpret—and there isn't much in Tintin—my mind tends to drift and be lulled.  With Gilliam and Spielberg, it might be because their movies are so full-formed and specific, there's not much for me to do.  It's like TV (which always puts me to sleep), which Marshall McLuhan labeled a "cold" medium, not asking much of its participants (if there's any participation at all), as opposed to a "hot" medium, like radio or books, where the participant's mind is active and fully functioning, filling in gaps, providing pictures and imagineering the story being fed to the brain.

** One of the really keen ideas that Spielberg brings to the table is his independence in creating the characters.  None of the voice-actors resemble their real-life counterparts—stands to reason, animators and Pixar have been doing that for years—but the recent motion-capturers, like Bob Zemeckis and James Cameron have tied their actors' likenesses to their characters, in an attempt to capture the humaness to the pixel-people.  Producer Peter Jackson, though, had no qualms about abandoning any semblance to Andy Serkis when bringing full-life to Gollum in the "Ring" trilogy.

*** One is tempted to recall Quint's soliloquy in Jaws, comparing a shark's eyes to "lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'."

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