Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse: The Artist/Entertainer at his Peak

With The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, both released this holiday season, the two creative (but not mutually exclusive) sides of director Steven Spielberg, the entertainer and artist, are on display on our movie screens. And though the films differ in quality, they’re both accomplishments that showcase him, once again, as one of the finest filmmaking talents in the world, if you weren't already aware of that fact. Many people aren't.

The two movies also share one thing in common, they’re both European stories that, as a positive sign of Hollywood’s recognition that foreigners make up a huge share of the overall box office, have not been Americanized in the slightest. Of course, being big budget, special effects extravaganzas, as only Hollywood could really afford to make, they are still in English. That’s the other economic reality. Hollywood still won’t take chances on subtitles fearing turning local audiences off of their movies.

I actually grew up with the adventures of Tintin, the young intrepid Belgian reporter, created by the Belgian artist Hergé (Georges Remi), over 23 comic books, as my grandparents (who moved there from Poland) and my mother, who was born there, were from that country. When I was young, reading them in their original French, my memories of the strip were that they contained exciting, exotic adventures, were populated by eccentric/amusing characters and were drawn with a simple but effective style. That last might seem too hard to duplicate on screen but Spielberg, utilizing performance capture animation, pulls it off flawlessly.

Performance capture animation requires photographing actors, particularly their facial and physical expressions, and then grafting them as animated figures on the screen making them look like actors playing the roles. (Motion capture is the process of photographing the whole person. The use of it for film is performance capture.) Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) was one such movie but it was a rather impersonal, cold project. The Adventures of Tintin is a warmer, personality driven effort and much more pleasing and entertaining as cinema. It’s a refreshingly different looking movie, too, an animated flick that looks like it’s been bred with a live action movie, adding up to something unique on screen. 

Based on Hergé’s 1943 comic The Secret of the Unicorn, and sticking closely to the outline if not the specific details of its story, the film was co-written by British screenwriters, Steven Moffat (TV’s Coupling, Doctor Who), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead ) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), and stars Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, King Kong, Jane Eyre) as Tintin, the odd looking boy, who with his faithful white dog Snowy and various pals, gets into one hair raising adventure after another. This time around, his purchase of a model sailing ship at an outdoor market attracts the attention of some unsavoury individuals. They alternately try to buy and steal it from him which leads Tintin to quickly realize there is more than meets the eye with his new possession. Soon enough, and paired with the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis, whose characters of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies, and King Kong, were capture performance roles), Tintin is on the run. He ends up in dangerous situations and ‘exotic’ climes, such as the (fictional) Middle Eastern country of Bagghar. Along for the ride, too, are the Thompson Twins (yes, the '80s pop group took its name from them), spelt Thomson (Simon Pegg) and Thompson (Nick Frost), the inept British twin detectives who make Inspector Clouseau look sharp.

The Thomson/Thompson twins and Tintin
With The Adventures of Tintin, and (for him) the new technology at hand, Spielberg is clearly having the time of his life behind the camera. Long single takes, darting angles, off kilter shots, his direction is impeccable and highly inventive. He's aided by the screenplay’s witty take on what’s going on, be it the twins being hoodwinked by slick pickpocket, Aristides Silk (Toby Jones), or Tintin’s landlady’s blasé reaction to the violence and mayhem that follows her tenant home. The film looks smashing and even the 3D elements of it work. Spielberg’s confident and light touch here imparts the exact cinematic tone largely absent in Martin Scorsese’s fantastical adventure Hugo. (However having seen Tintin and the 3D Hugo just two days apart, I can safely say that this cinematic process is not good for the eyes. I wanted to take the 3D glasses off during the latter movie.) And the film’s characterizations, including Daniel Craig’s villainous collector Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine and (in flashbacks,) pirate Red Rackham, are delightful, though it’s initially a bit jarring to hear Bell’s English accent coming out of Tintin’s mouth. (The photo stills illustrating this post make the characters’ movements seem jerky, but that is emphatically not the case.) The movie also convincingly feels like an old fashioned thirties set adventure with only the odd phrase – such as Third World, actually coined in the '50s – seeming out of place.

One interesting and understandable deviation from the film’s source material is its treatment of Captain Haddock, whose drinking, (actually alcoholism, though it was never identified as such in the comics), was always treated with blithe disregard by Hergé. Obviously in 2011, and in a family friendly movie, no less, this cavalier attitude could not be countenanced by the filmmakers. So Haddock is called on his excessive drinking by Tintin and pretty much sobers up for the rest of the film. I don’t love this change entirely – it is a smidgen preachy – but I recognize its necessity.

The movie does eventually become somewhat tiresome as it becomes apparent that it is tonally one note. To quote Ben Mulroney, the entertainment journalist who hosted a Q and A with star Jamie Bell after the promotional screening of Tintin: “the film is one big chase movie.” It kind of is, actually, and certainly in its second half. Part of the problem, too, is the familiarity of the story. It often echoes, in various ways, the themes and motifs of the Indiana Jones films from their often wry humour to the far-flung locations where Tintin finds himself. The only difference might be Tintin's lack of romantic desire. (Tintin is defiantly asexual.) The film is also the first half of a two parter (with the adventure continued in Red Rackham’s Treasure) and thus ends abruptly just as it’s getting interesting. (I don’t know if that sequel will actually be the next Tintin adventure to be adapted as a movie; Spileberg has only confirmed that The Lord of the Ring’s Peter Jackson is signed on to direct it, but not which comic book will be rendered thus.) Unconsciously perhaps, The Secret of the Unicorn may have attracted Spielberg precisely because of those linkages but there were other Tintin comic books (The Shooting Star, Explorers on the Moon, The Calculus Affair ) that could have been adapted to fresher, more original cinematic effect.

Tintin's creator,  Hergé  
Finally, of course, there is the cumbersome legacy of Hergé himself Enjoyable as the Tintin books always were, they were also very minor affairs, not really saying much that was pertinent or revealing about Belgium or Europe. They transmuted instead some of Hergé’s conservative and sometimes contentious, read proto-fascist, mindset. The Tintins, like The Hardy Boys, were a stepping stone for me, to cleverer, savvier and more probing adventure stories, usually in the realms of science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg). Thus, in wanting to be as faithful to Hergé’s work as possible – and he largely is – Spielberg was also burdening himself with the tropes of a superficial entertainment. I’ll emphasize the latter here – the movie is fun – but even with Spielberg at the top of his game, conceptually The Adventures of Tintin cannot be anything but a slight, albeit  highly skilled, effort.

On the other hand, War Horse, Spielberg’s other late-season movie, is destined, I am sure, to be recognized as one of his very finest films, an emotional powerhouse on a par with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T.: the Extraterrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 classic children’s novel, later turned into an award winning experimental play War Horse, War Horse (the movie splits the title into two words) tells the seemingly simple story of an English boy, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine, making his film debut) circa the early 20th century, and a horse, named Joey. Albert’s troubled father, Ted (Peter Mullan) a Boer war veteran taken to drink, has bought Joey on an (expensive) whim, even though the handsome steed is clearly not cut out for subsistence farming. That, at least, is what Ted’s appalled wife, Rose (Emily Watson) thinks. She’s also highly fearful that the family will be evicted from their home because the rent money has been squandered on the horse. Joey, of course turns out to be made of sterner stuff, and in a theme that wends its way throughout the movie consistently proves himself to be full of surprises and uncommon strength, physically and emotionally.  

Joey and Jeremy Irvine in War Horse
The first half hour of War Horse is, admittedly, clunky, offering a sappy, overly cute portrait of Albert and his family – Rose practically glows as the kind, stern matriarch, and Ted is more glowering than disturbed – but once the family has to give Joey up, the film (and Spielberg) hits its stride. Worse, as far as Albert is concerned, Joey's shipped to France to be ridden by the military during the just-declared First World War. That’s where the film’s second great theme makes itself manifest. From the moment a sympathetic army captain (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he’ll take good care of Joey, the horse will have its defenders who will love and cherish it like it was their own. But none will care about him as much as Albert, who will risk life and limb to get Joey back home to safety in England.

While War Horse, on one level, is a very linear film, it’s also the most expressionistic movie Spielberg has ever helmed, simply because Joey goes from one owner to the next, British, German, French and then back again, throughout the movie. Characters appear for a few short scenes and sequences and then the story moves on to the next protagonist(s). Often their fates are shocking, even brutal. (That shouldn’t surprise anyone, Spielberg has, in movies like Saving Private Ryan and Munich, not been one to pull his punches or hesitate to kill off beloved individuals.) There are revelatory, emotionally devastating moments in War Horse, which I won’t spoil for you, that will long linger in my memory.  

The film is also gorgeously shot by Spielberg’s favourite cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (Schindler’s List, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and subtly scored by the indispensable John Williams, (who’s composed the music for all but one of Spielberg’s 26 features), adding immeasurably to the beautiful whole. (The two also performed the same duties, effectively, for The Adventures of Tintin.) The film’s acting is uniformly fine, too, though David Thewlis’s landlord is almost a little too oily and villainous.

Steven Spielberg (centre) on the set of War Horse
Spielberg, and his screenwriters, Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis, tackle straight ahead drama here, which is an unusual departure for Curtis (he's best known for writing romantic fluff like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually or sharp satiric TV comedy like Blackadder and Spitting Image). Thankfully, they don’t make the mistake that director Clint Eastwood did in Flags for Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which is, morally equating the sides in the war. Eastwood basically suggested that the same level of atrocities accrued to both the United States and Japan in World War Two (They never did; the Japanese approached the Nazis in their viciousness and brutality. The Americans didn’t even come close.) In War Horse, the Germans, or at least their military machine are portrayed as more callous and brutal than the British, which is accurate, as the former are the ones who introduced poisonous mustard gas into the conflict. Yet, the film balances that potentially racist viewpoint with several depictions of decent and honourable German soldiers who take Joey under their wing and show high valour during battle. Working within a more restrictive PG-13 film rating, as he usually does, Spielberg still manages to craft powerful sequences in War Horse that are fully the equal of those in the much more graphic Saving Private Ryan (which was originally rated R before garnering a lower film classification) in assailing the futility, carnage and waste of human lives that is war. That’s the mark of a great director.

Most impressive in the film, however, has to be the highly touching depiction of Joey and his pal, a horse named Topthorn. It’s not only that you fall in love with the animals and worry yourself sick about their possibly getting killed at the front, it’s that they emerge as fully realized creatures without any obvious anthropomorphism in the process. In that sense, I can only compare War Horse to the way Carroll Ballard portrayed various animals in his terrific movies (The Black Stallion, also about a horse; Never Cry WolfFly Away Home.) Higher praise cannot be offered. (Astoundingly, fourteen different horses were used to play Joey at various stages of his life, including eight horses playing him as an adult; I couldn’t tell that it wasn’t just one horse playing the grown up role.)

But it’s the emotional content in the movie that, ultimately, differentiates Spielberg from most of his fellows, a trait that conversely has him routinely attacked by other critics for birthing schmaltzy, sentimental pictures. War Horse almost entirely avoids that trap mostly because Spielberg so sincerely believes in his material and is not afraid of offering the viewer an honest portrayal of emotion and sentiment (which is not the same as sentimentality, an occasional Spielberg flaw that enfolds a dishonest saccharine element.) Truthfully, I can’t think of another director, except possibly for Peter Jackson, who could have pulled off War Horse, without the film succumbing to a winking cynicism.

With both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, it’s evident that the 65 year-old Spielberg still remains a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood and in worldwide filmmaking circles, at a time when his compatriots’ output often seems erratic (Martin Scorsese) or utterly negligible (Francis Ford Coppola). Tintin may just be a lark for him, despite his successful rendition of the comic into film, but War Horse cuts much deeper. For fans of the man, both sides of his prodigious talent, the consummate entertainer and the committed serious artist are on display this season. In an otherwise largely wretched year at the movies one couldn’t ask for a better cinematic holiday present.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree more. War Horse and Tintin were spectacular and I can't wait for more from Spielberg.