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The adventures of Spielberg

The director's back in a big way,

NEW YORK - Break? What break?

It's been 31/2 years since Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Three-and-a-half years without a movie from one of Hollywood's most prolific, powerful, kudo-ed directors.

What has Steven been up to all this time?

Making movies, it turns out.

"I didn't stop," he says. "In fact, I was doing Tintin while the Indy movie was still in production. . . . We were preparing the scripts.

"I had just never made an animated film before and that takes a lot longer than making a live-action picture."

And The Adventures of Tintin, opening Wednesday, isn't any ordinary animated film. With a reported budget of $135 million, the adaptation of the comic-book series by the late, great Belgian artist Hergé uses state-of-the-art motion-capture technology. Its producer is Peter Jackson, whose Kiwi-based digital effects house, Weta, was responsible for The Lord of the Rings. Tintin looks like nothing else - kind of real, kind of like a comic strip sprung to life.

Its North American opening comes two months after its release in Europe - where the boy reporter with the cowlick and the perky white terrier are as iconic as Mickey Mouse. On the Continent (and elsewhere overseas), Tintin has already topped $233 million in box-office receipts.

Oh, and, by the way, Spielberg has another movie in theaters before the year is out: War Horse, his big-canvas interpretation of the Michael Morpurgo novel - and of the hit London and Broadway stage production. This one is about an English teenager separated from his beloved steed during World War I. It opens next week, Christmas Day.

Shot in the United Kingdom, with a trusty cast of Brits (Thewlis! Watson! Cumberbatch!) and a $70 million budget, War Horse is the kind of labor-intensive undertaking - a World War I period piece, with battle scenes and extras and eight horses to play the titular beast - that would make most directors sweat.

"It came together really quickly," he says, matter-of-factly. "One of my faster projects."

And although the two films are opening within days of each other, Spielberg - in a Park Avenue hotel on a Sunday morning a few weeks before he's set to go off and start another movie (more on that in a minute) - says time management was not an issue.

"There was no juggling at all between the two projects," he explains.

"There was a point in Tintin where my work was done for a while, where the animators were working on all of the scenes and there was nothing for me to see or interact with.

"And that was the time that War Horse came into my life. . . . And we went and made the movie only five short months after Richard Curtis delivered his screenplay."

Spielberg, who turns 65 Sunday, says he was drawn to War Horse for a number of reasons. His teenage daughter, Destry, is an accomplished equestrian. His wife, actress Kate Capshaw, rides, and the family keeps horses (nine at the moment) on their Los Angeles property. The equine genre is a favorite, too. (The Red Pony tops his list.)

But War Horse was more than the story of a boy and his horse.

"It was also the story about the Great War that built a continental divide between them," he explains. "It's a very experiential story from the horse's point of view, and then, of course, the boy wants to get his horse back, and so he goes into the war to find him."

Rated PG-13, War Horse has grim and haunting sequences in the mud and rubble of the French battlefields. But this is not Saving Private Ryan.

"I went out of my way not to make this anything like Saving Private Ryan, in terms of its visceral intensity and physical carnage," he says. "I just wanted to stay away from that. Because I want families to share this experience. . . .

"The war is the cause of this story, but once the story begins, it becomes more of a backdrop. It's less about the war and it's more about the characters just trying to survive."

As for The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg had admired the books, a series of beautifully drawn adventures with a cast of colorfully nutty characters, for ages. He first optioned the screen rights back in 1983, and had planned to meet with Hergé to discuss the project.

"We only had one wonderful phone call, and then he passed away two weeks later," Spielberg recounts. "He had invited me to Belgium. He had loved Raiders of the Lost Ark and wanted me to do Tintin. . . .

"But I was shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the U.K., and I couldn't come right away - I wish I had now, looking back. I made a date to see him in two or three weeks, and that's when he died."

Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's longtime producing partner, says that for the longest time he didn't know how to approach Tintin - as live action, with actors wearing cartoony prosthetics, or as straightforward animation.

"It really wasn't until Steven saw what Jim Cameron had done on Avatar that he said, 'OK, I know exactly how I want to do Tintin,' " Kennedy recalls, speaking by phone from her L.A. office recently. "And it was interesting for Steven to say this, because he has not been a filmmaker that has embraced the world of digital cinema with a huge amount of enthusiasm. He had been tiptoeing through that world."

Not anymore. Jamie Bell, who "stars" as Tintin - it's his body, his face that had all the performance-capture sensors attached to it - says he's signed to do two more Tintin films, if the inaugural installment hits the studio's profit algorithm. ("I have no idea what that is, though," Bell quips. "A couple of hundred million dollars, to me, sounds like a lot of money.")

But right now - literally, right now - Spielberg has moved on. He is wrapping production on Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States, watching his country torn asunder.

It's history, but it is also, Spielberg says, alarmingly relevant.

"Especially now, with the sort of political civil war we seem to be fighting on Capitol Hill," he notes. "It's a disconcerting time. We're so polarized. We're further apart now as a nation, politically - not since the Civil War have we been this contentiously polarized. . . . The country needs to pull together to fix itself, or to help itself get fixed, and that's hard to do when the country is at odds with how to fix it."

But that's Lincoln, slated to open next December.

This December, it's Tintin and War Horse. Spielberg is not slowing down.