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Around the World in Motion Capture

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DW Studios

Steven Spielberg is back! After the disappointing “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (which, while containing fragments of Spielbergian magic, often felt flat and labored), “The Adventures of Tintin” sees the master director back on form. Mr. Spielberg’s new collaboration with fellow fantasy filmmaker Peter Jackson is more fruitful than the last one with his old friend George Lucas. Mr. Spielberg seemed to have participated in “Crystal Skull” out of sense of (understandable) loyalty to his old filmmaking friend, with the director appearing to go through the through the motions rather than being inspired to create a new Indy movie for the 21st century. The motion-capture in this new film seems to have liberated Mr. Spielberg though, freeing him up to try new things while recapturing his old magic.

The Spielbergian signs are all here: There are the trademark uses of light and shadow to generate a sense of wonder and mystery, the positioning of reflective surfaces to create frames within frames and inventively utilize screen space (a composition with multiple mirrors in a marketplace is an early highlight) and the choreography of elements in — and movement of — the frame is dazzling and energized, with all these techniques keeping the story moving and the characters alive.

Every inch of the screen is in use, whether opening out the space — we see a “Lawrence of Arabia”-like desert vista — or packing the frame with inventive bits of business, such as the comic moment with the hotel after a fast-paced motorbike sequence. And after viewers have been bombarded with sloppy 3-D postproduction conversions of 2-D films (which have coasted on the box-office success of the technically groundbreaking 3-D of “Avatar”), here’s a director once again using three-dimensional presentation to bolster the drama, heighten the sense of reality (you feel as if you could reach out and touch the particles of dust floating through the air in the mansion) and expand the film frame, rather than bolting it on as an afterthought to simply increase revenue.

Mr. Spielberg and his gifted cast and crew deftly set up the character of Tintin (Jamie Bell) and the drama he is involved in quickly and economically (and present viewers familiar the image of Tintin from Hergé’s books with a witty in-joke). Tintin, like the child heroes from earlier Spielberg films — such as Henry Thomas’s Elliot in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” or Christian Bale’s Jim from “Empire of the Sun” — is plucky and resourceful; a savvy youngster plunged into a murky world of adults.

Tintin’s investigative instincts and journalistic skills come into play early on, when he acquires a model of the Unicorn sailing ship, which is also wanted by a mysterious figure named Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Very soon, a series of strange and dangerous events rouse Tintin into action, setting him off on an adventure that will take him around the world. With his trusty dog, Snowy, by his side, Tintin is thrown together with various colorful characters, including a pair of bumbling detectives named Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a whisky drinking, washed-up sea captain who holds the key to the mystery of the Unicorn.

While Tintin is the ostensible hero of the film (a smart, plucky Indiana Jones-type minus the world-weary cynicism and moral ambiguity), the film’s real hero is arguably Haddock. The frequently drunk captain initially seems like he’s just going to be a bumbling comic sidekick to Tintin’s more serious heroic lead, with Haddock’s clumsy behavior mirroring the comic high jinks of Sean Connery’s Jones Sr. in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But as the film continues, the brave and eager character of Tintin seems to recede from the story a little, while Haddock — growing increasingly sober and surefooted — steps forward to dominate much of the drama, commanding our attention and gaining our sympathy. The emotional side of Haddock’s backstory and conflict with Sakharine is the most overt Spielbergian sentimental touch, but the saccharine side of Mr. Spielberg that sometimes overwhelms his films is judiciously employed here: It’s a sweet sprinkling of sugar over the story rather than a sickly coating of syrup.

While Mr. Spielberg’s characteristic emotional touches are evident throughout the film (family and home are key features), it’s probably his equally recognizable filmmaking skills that will have viewers gasping in astonishment, especially in the action sequences. An early vehicle chase involving the indomitable Snowy is a thrilling foretaste of what’s to come. Later, there’s a suspenseful scene involving a plane propeller threatening the lead characters that — in suspense terms — improves on a similar scene involving a boat propeller in “Last Crusade.” But the standout set piece is an action-packed motorcycle chase presented in a sustained shot, with Mr. Spielberg — the expert showman — juggling various dramatic elements and achieving the thrilling heights of the famous mine-car chase from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” A dock-based clash later in the film is an epic battle that serves as the icing on the cake. This dock sequence is suitably action packed, but it’s also dramatically motivated, mirroring an earlier flashback to a pirate ship battle. And all these moments and more feature the musical talents of composer John Williams, who once again delivers a rousing score to accompany the action.

Some people may complain that this film is another assembly-line blockbuster that has been ruthlessly designed simply to sell toys, but there aren’t many films that have such a sure directorial hand at the filmmaking rudder, with the characters and story complemented by the visual effects instead of being overwhelmed by them. And as well as solid production support from Mr. Jackson, Mr. Spielberg was no doubt aided by the dream team screenwriting trio of Steven Moffat (BBC’s “Dr. Who” and “Sherlock Holmes”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”).

If there is a drawback, it could be the surfeit of exposition that is spread throughout the film, which occasionally slows the pacing. But even when an excess of plot threatens to stall the film’s momentum, Mr. Spielberg ensures that the story information is communicated in a dramatically compelling way while being rooted in character, as in the moments where the visuals depicting the Unicorn’s past are skilfully merged with scenes in the present.

Tintin purists may protest that Mr. Spielberg and company have taken unforgivable liberties with Hergé’s creation and turned the distinctive title character into a generic action hero, but ultimately this is a Steven Spielberg film through and through, in the best sense of the term. Just as Mr. Spielberg put his own spin on Mr. Lucas’s Indiana Jones character, the director filters Hergé’s characters through his own unique directorial sensibilities. The result is a film that reinvigorates Hergé’s stories for a young generation that’s new to Tintin, while putting a new spin on the Tintin tales familiar to older viewers. Outside of all of this though, “The Adventures of Tintin” is a funny, moving, smart and thrilling adventure film in its own right and a striking reminder to viewers that Mr. Spielberg is still a peerless moviemaker who, above all, clearly loves making films for himself and for audiences worldwide.

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