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Review: 'The Adventures of Tintin' offers boyish escapades and nostalgic antics

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
December 21, 2011 -- Updated 1714 GMT (0114 HKT)
Tintin, voiced by Jamie Bell, has a knack for finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tintin, voiced by Jamie Bell, has a knack for finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Tintin" exists in a lost world of colonial exploration and adventure
  • Steven Spielberg jokily introduces his hero through a street artist's quick sketch
  • The story moves at a good lick and Spielberg's touch is lighter

(CNN) -- "The Adventures of Tintin" is the first of two Steven Spielberg movies to hit theaters this week, the second being "War Horse," on Christmas Day.

"Tintin" is the obvious popcorn movie of the two, the crowd-pleaser: "Jurassic Park" to the other's prestige-hungry "Schindler's List." It's also the better of the two -- a buoyant, breathlessly-paced motion capture animated adventure that puts the last "Indiana Jones" movie to shame.

Maybe I'm biased. I grew up reading Hergé's comic books about the escapades of the intrepid young reporter, his valiant fox terrier Snowy, and their blundering ally Captain Haddock.

Like "Indiana Jones," "Tintin" exists in a lost world of colonial exploration and adventure. His Belgian creator, who signed himself Hergé, was 15 when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, and 26 when King Kong climbed the Empire State. His stories cling to the romance of those tall tales, real and imaginary.

Tintin had a knack for finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time -- or the "right" place and time, depending on your point of view. Where other reporters might have to dig out a story, mystery knocked on Tintin's door -- introducing him to bizarre characters and whisking him to exotic locations in Africa, Central America, or (once) the Moon.

Spielberg jokily introduces his hero through a street artist's quick sketch, before abandoning the familiar 2-D cartoon for a new 3-D, motion capture model. To my eyes there's something disconcertingly creepy about the new look -- designed at Peter Jackson's WETA studios.

Still, you get used to it, and underneath his placid, plastic, doll-like surface it's the same old Tintin: a pale, round-faced young man with a tuft of marmalade hair perked on his forehead and a fondness for pants that come down to just an inch below the knee.

No sooner has he picked up a model sailing ship at a flea market than he finds himself at the center of an intense bidding war for the self-same object. When he refuses to sell, the model is stolen from his home and a stranger is gunned down on his doorstep.

Hidden in the ship is one third of a treasure map. The dastardly Ivanovich Sakharine has his hands on a second section and means to piece the whole thing together, but he also needs the drunken sea captain Haddock to help him decipher it. Fortunately Tintin helps the skipper escape Sakharine's clutches and then the race is one for the missing third, which is in the possession of an Arab sheikh with a fondness for opera.

Such antics might seem positively antiquarian, but the story moves at a good lick and Spielberg's touch is lighter than we've seen in his live action movies for years. A shoot-out and chase in an old steamship is expertly handled, but the sequence moves up a gear when Tintin and the permanently inebriated Haddock are stranded in a rowboat, then another when they commandeer a sea plane that's running out of fuel -- and the best is yet to come: a gravity-defying race through the Casbah which bends physics with the glee you can only find in 3-D animation.

It's delirious stuff, often laugh-out-loud funny, which isn't surprising with screenplay writers like Steven Moffat (the writer behind the BBC's recent "Dr Who" and "Sherlock Holmes" revivals), Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead") and Joe Cornish ("Attack the Block"). A running gag in which Snowy is always a step ahead of his newshound pal is especially sweet.

I might quibble about the voice casting. Jamie Bell's Tintin is fine, but as fans will know, it's the redoubtable dipsomaniac Captain Haddock who keeps the show ticking over. Andy Serkis may be the motion-capture king, but Haddock's voice isn't near as robust and earthy as I used to hear it in my head.

In fairness, my 6-year-old did not share this concern. And it's a pleasure to find a movie we both enjoyed as much as this one.

The bar has been set. We'll have to wait and see if Peter Jackson can match it in the next one.

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