“Great snakes!”

We’re living in interesting times, indeed, when directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are making 3-D extravaganzas and animated features.  Yet such was the case in 2011 with Scorsese’s live-action 3-D film “Hugo” and Spielberg’s animated 3-D film “The Adventures of Tintin.”  As we might expect from master filmmakers, though, both films turned out to be pretty good.

The fact is, I liked “The Adventures of Tintin” more than I liked Spielberg’s other big-budget production from 2011, the overblown “War Horse.”  I found “Tintin” lighter, zippier, more exciting, more humorous, and more fun.  Maybe the director should do an animated horse story next time.

“Tintin’s” screenwriters based their script on the comic-book adventures of a young journalist adventurer named Tintin and his fox terrier Snowy, originally written by the Belgian writer Hergé (Georges Prosper Remi, 1907-1983), who introduced the characters in 1929.  When Hergé died, his characters had become among the most-popular comic-book creations in Europe, inspiring a 1991 TV series, a video game, and an upcoming sequel to the present film.  That may explain why Spielberg’s film, which he co-produced with Peter Jackson, grossed only about $70,000,000 in the U.S. but made an additional $300,000,000 worldwide.  People in the States probably weren’t as familiar with the stories as people in Europe and elsewhere.  For instance, Spielberg says he only became aware of the Tintin characters in the early Eighties, while Jackson, a New Zealander, had grown up with them.

If “The Adventures of Tintin” reminds you of an Indiana Jones adventure, don’t be surprised.  Spielberg says on the disc’s accompanying documentary that after making the first Indy movie, people asked him if the “Tintin” stories had influenced his film.  The director admitted he wasn’t too familiar with them, but he seriously considered making a live-action version of them back then, going so far as to contact Hergé.  The negotiations ended, however, when the author died shortly thereafter.

So, why did Spielberg decide, years later, to go the route of performance-capture (or motion-capture) animation rather than live action?  I mean, when CGI can create characters that look almost real, then why not use real actors?  Well, in the first place, Spielberg tells us he didn’t want “Tintin” to look like another Indiana Jones picture with a younger hero.  Besides, he says, he wanted to retain as much of the look of a comic book as possible without it’s being a Saturday-morning special.  I admit, the animation does look good.  It’s thorough and particularized without looking creepy the way Robert Zemeckis’s CGI rotoscoping did (“Polar Express,” “Beowulf”).  I suppose Spielberg’s animation is a proper compromise between a cartoon and real life.  The director also tells us he got the CGI performance-capture idea from Peter Jackson and “The Lord of the Rings,” which is why he approached Jackson and his production company in the first place to do parts and then all of the animation work.  Spielberg even went so far as to hire Andy Serkis (Gollum, the ultimate CGI creation) for a major part.

Anyway, what’s “Tintin” about?  It’s primarily a globe-trotting adventure, much, as I say, in the Indiana Jones tradition, a mystery, and a treasure hunt.  It involves Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), a teenage reporter, and his trusty dog finding a part of a code inside a model sailing ship, a code it appears everyone else in the film badly wants.  But, especially, a villain named Sakharine (Daniel Craig) wants it, and Sakharine is willing to do anything, including murder, to obtain it.  That sets things in motion, and from there Tintin meets a pair of bumbling, comic police detectives (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), and a drunken sailor, Captain Haddock (Serkis).  It seems that only a true Haddock can uncover the secret of the codes.  Before long (well, after a good degree of murder and mayhem), Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock are flying, sailing, and trudging to the far corners of the Earth in search of…whatever it is they’re after, which even they aren’t sure about.

Intrigue, chases, fights, killings, explosions, and flying bullets are the order of the day, with a musical track as always by John Williams, making the whole thing sound more than ever like a cross between “Indiana Jones” and “1941.”

Lost in the proceedings, however, is too much trace of humanity in the characters.  Despite the best efforts of the talented voices involved (which also includes Toby Jones, Cary Elwes, Daniel Mays, and others), neither they nor the animators can quite make us care about the participants.  Things move very quickly, the action almost nonstop, which provides very little time for anything approaching character development.  I suspect this is because Hergé himself provided little background on his characters and simply presented them as objects in his adventure tales.  And that’s the way Spielberg presents them as well:  as objects.  If you can get over that stumbling block, you’ll probably get caught up in the film’s riotous action and often slapstick humor.

Even though “The Adventures of Tintin” can be exhausting, there’s a certain charm to the goofiness of it all, and the exotic locales and attractive animation make it mostly entertaining.  I don’t see it as one of Spielberg’s best films, but it is playful and appropriately busy.

Most animated films show up well in high definition, and “Tintin” is no exception.  Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec, the video engineers reproduce the film about as well as humanly possible, retaining, of course, its native aspect ratio, 2.35:1.  It boasts gorgeous colors, precise definition and detailing, solid black levels, etc.  Yet it’s never excessively bright, gaudy, or glaring, the color more subdued than one often encounters in these kinds of films, meaning they’re not at all cartoonish.

With lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 going for it, what else would we expect from a Spielberg adventure film but glorious sound?  Directionality in the all the channels is excellent; dynamics are strong; transient response is ultra-quick; and bass is deep and taut.  The John Williams background music comes through especially well, with a dramatic use of the surrounds at every turn.

Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray Combo Edition contains the feature film in high def plus an extensive behind-the-scenes documentary on the moviemaking.  The doc is ninety-six minutes long and divided into eleven parts, each part accessible separately or altogether from a “Play All” button.  The segment titles tell the story:  “Toasting Tintin, Parts 1 and 2,” “The Journey to Tintin,” “The World of Tintin,” “The Who’s Who of Tintin,” “Tintin:  Conceptual Design,” “Tintin: In the Volume,” “Snowy:  From Beginning to End,” “Animating Tintin,” “Tintin:  The Score,” “Collecting Tintin.”  The information covers just about every aspect of the author, the comic books, the history, the filmmaking, the actors, and the music in the movie.  It’s a little long, and it gets a bit repetitive at times, but it’s well worth one’s while.

In addition, disc one contains sixteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains a DVD of the feature film in standard def, the package also containing a download code for an UltraViolet digital copy (the offer expiring March 13, 2013).  The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case with the front and back carved out, further enclosed by a handsome slipcover.

Parting Thoughts:
Although “The Adventures of Tintin” is resplendent to look at and features a ton of derring-do, it doesn’t quite come to life in as inspiring or totally lovable a way as we might like, never fully sparking the imagination.  I fear it’s a matter of heart.  Tintin himself comes across as too much a shallow cartoon character rather than a fleshed-out human being.  I would compare the present movie to “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” as opposed to the earlier Indiana Jones films.  That said, the shortcomings probably don’t matter much, since the pure adventure involved tends to dominate almost every scene and pull everything ahead of it.  The movie may not move one to the heights, and it may not be worthy of too many repeat visits, but it’s fun while it’s going on, so who cares.  And for what it’s worth, the Wife-O-Meter, who liked it more than I did, said she would rate it a 7 or even an 8.  Let’s go with the 7.