As a kid, I had a making-of book filled with storyboards that Steven Spielberg used while shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark — proof that the filmmaker carries in his head an uncanny ability to lay out screen space. It's as if someone said, "truck chase," and the pursuit immediately unfolded in Spielberg's mind, not just in every direction but also in every dimension: ahead, behind, sides, distance, up close, even underneath. Spielberg was working in 3-D before anyone slapped a pair of glasses on him. He perceives space like a cubist.
And therein lies almost all the fascination of The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg's first movie shot in motion-capture 3-D digital animation. Watching the movie is like viewing a Spielberg storyboard sprung to action, if not life, and you can appreciate the magical deftness of his touch unencumbered by gravity or physical camera placement. (So it's hard to film a scene with mirrors, eh? Watch the director dust his knuckles on his lapel as his camera glides unseen past a hundred of 'em.) All that's missing, alas, is the undervalued part of Spielberg that relishes what real-live human beings bring to a movie: flashes of wit, surprise and, above all, personality.
The movie is adapted from the Belgian artist Hergé's comic books about a curlicue-coifed reporter and his wonder dog, Snowy. Their thirst for adventure has them engaging their first globe-trotting mystery before the animated credits are dry. A flea-market schooner model plunges the doughboyish hero (voiced by Jamie Bell) into a new intrigue involving a gruff sea captain (Andy Serkis, the digital Zelig) and the captain's scheming arch-rival (Daniel Craig). Soon enough, the director is ditching that antiquated old Steadicam for a dizzying instant-classic set piece that careens, teeters and zip-lines around Escher-like streets after a clue-snatching hawk.
Look elsewhere for the usual yap about Spielberg as soulless tyro and rank sentimentalist. The most indelible parts of his thrill-ride movies are the inspired character beats ("You're going to need a bigger boat"), and the supposed cream puff has directed what may be the two most stark considerations of killing on film (Adam Goldberg's memory-scarring knifing in Saving Private Ryan, and the assassins methodically assembling their weapons before one victim in Munich). But Tintin has little of either virtue. It's essentially a spry video-game interstitial.
Spielberg's visual virtuosity is everywhere in evidence, but the plastic-replica limitations of motion-capture snuff the droll humor. Tintin is a dashboard bobblehead. The villain is regrettably generic, and supporting characters who draw knowing chuckles from fans (such as Simon Pegg's and Nick Frost's bumbling Tweedledum-dums) never quite invite newcomers into their embrace. In some ways, Tintin is arguably Spielberg's first movie in 2-D.