Low road to adventure

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Ever been to the Uncanny Valley? You probably have without knowing it.  Have you ever seen a doll, or a puppet, or an animatronic figure that was absolutely fantastic, and you watched it with fascination and wonder until something suddenly seemed very wrong and creepy, and you backed off in revulsion? That moment when you sink into queasiness causes, in the science of robotics, a dip in the graph of human reactions, and that’s the Uncanny Valley.

            I go there every time I see a movie that’s filmed in motion capture, the computer animation technique that builds eerily perfect, almost-human-looking characters from the movements of real people who were filmed while wearing a suit of reflective dots.

            This goes for individual characters too; the first one most of us came across was Jar-Jar Binks, who had the virtue of being utterly repulsive from the get-go. (What was Lucas thinking, if he was thinking at all?) And while I admire Andy Serkis’s work in “Lord of the Rings,” I saw little technical improvement between Jar-Jar and Gollum.

            And though “The Polar Express” kept me teetering on the edge of Too Creepy, when I heard that Steven Spielberg was planning to use mocap (as it’s called) to film a Tintin adventure, I was guardedly optimistic.

            The 23 Tintin stories were drawn by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, whose pen name was Hergé, the French pronunciation of his initials, reversed. Hergé drew Tintin from 1929, all through World War Two, up until his death in 1983.

            Spielberg discovered the Tintin books when a critic compared them to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and was scheduled to meet with Hergé the week he died. The artist had been a fan of the director, and his widow awarded Spielberg the rights. Those rights got knocked around and reassigned for years until Spielberg returned to the project in 2002. At that time he was planning a live-action version, but he asked Peter Jackson about using a computer-generated Snowy (Tintin’s dog), and Jackson convinced him he could only do the original justice with an animated film.

            Tintin, with his plus-fours, red hair and cowlick, is, along with Astérix the Gaul, one of the most recognizable comic book characters in the francophone world, or probably in the world at large, because the books have been translated into at least 19 languages. 

            The youthful hero started out as an anti-Communist, bashing the miserable Bolshies in Soviet Russia. His later adventures became more fanciful and wide-ranging; Spielberg and his scripters have conflated three of the most popular: “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure.” If you know the books you can piece the plot together in your mind, and if you don’t I’m not going to tell you, because you might read them. But after a leisurely opening in a colorful flea market, where Tintin is being sketched by a sidewalk artist who turns out to be Hergé himself, the adventures begin in earnest, with barely a moment to draw a breath.

            In fact, “The Adventures of Tintin” falls solidly in line with Spielberg’s other adventure fantasies such as the Indian Jones tetralogy, with all of their shortcomings as well as their charms. For example, his lack of spatial sense: the villain’s seaplane looks by perspective to be about a hundred yards away, yet Tintin swims the entire distance underwater. And there’s his pell-mell pacing that drives on without a letup; there’s a reason Shakespeare throws in a quiet scene every now and then, Steve.

            But the one thing about the movie that’s disturbing from beginning to end is the motion capture. The animation is so technically perfect that you find yourself fascinated by it rather than by the story. Look at Snowy’s fur – it’s rippling in the wind! Look at Tintin’s skin – it looks so human you want to stroke it! That’s when the creepy factor began to take over, and I spent the majority of the movie in the Uncanny Valley. If Spielberg and Jackson had taken the trouble to do a casting search they could have found excellent unknown actors who look exactly like Hergé’s characters, and made a rip-snorter of a live-action version. As it is we’re stuck with simulacra that look too real to be animated and too perfect to be real. But if the movie turns a new generation on to Hergé’s great stories, that’s a useful thing.