Tintin, the boy reporter with the whooshy quiff and the reliable, and reliably mischievous, terrier, is a pop icon across wide swaths of the globe. In Europe, where Tintin was born - on the drawing table of a Brussels cartoonist, Hergé, in 1929 - his merchandise is as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse's. The books, with their distinctive covers, intricate panels, and colorful designs, have sold north of 220 million copies. They've been translated into 96 languages.
But while Tintin and his pooch, Snowy, are not entirely unfamiliar to kids and their parents in the States, they've been a blip in the collective cultural consciousness. Until now.
Steven Spielberg, a longtime fan, has remedied the situation with The Adventures of Tintin, an extravagant, eye-popping romp that uses motion-capture technology - like James Cameron deployed in Avatar, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings - to bring this valiant teen and his gang of friends and foes to the screen. (He's most probably a teen, although Tintin's exact age is impossible to determine, in the comics, and in the film.) Assisted by Peter Jackson, another Tintinophile, who also happens to be the proprietor of Weta, the innovative visual-effects operation responsible for the aforementioned Rings trilogy, Spielberg has made his biggest, boomingest adventure since Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones.
And if there's a problem with Tintin, it's that it's too big and booming. At the midway point of the story, which starts with Tintin purchasing a model of an old three-masted ship in a street market - a ship that all sorts of nefarious types are after - and flashes back about 400 years for a bit of pirate-treasure backstory, and then heads to Morocco, before returning home, the whole thing begins to resemble a theme-park ride. An impressive theme-park ride - especially in 3-D - but without any emotional depth or nuance. Exhilarating, but exhausting.
Still, the trippy digital re-creation of North African dunes, of a yellow biplane flying o'er the Mediterranean, of bustling Moroccan streets, of vintage cars tooling down a European city's cobblestones - they're all gorgeous. And the characters' quirky, cartoony features - Captain Haddock's bulbous nose; the bowler-topped, mustachioed Thomson; and Thompson, the villainous Sakharine, whose wire-rims and beard make him look a whole lot like, well, Steven Spielberg - come to life.
Tintin is an odd hero, in Hergé's books and in Spielberg's film (writ by Brits Joe Cornish, Steven Moffat, and Edgar Wright). He's plucky and persevering, but not exactly complex - in fact, he's kind of blank. He can seem terribly naive and trusting, but then capable of great feats of derring-do. Jamie Bell supplies our hero's voice and movements in the film, while motion-capture king Andy Serkis does Archibald Haddock, Tintin's besotted, salty-dog sidekick. Parents might find Haddock's serial drunkenness a little alarming, but he comes from a tipsy tradition that harks back to W.C. Fields. And Haddock, without doubt, gets off the best lines. (A fave: "I'll not be doubted by some pip-squeak tuft of ginger and his irritating dog. I am master and commander of the seas!")
The Adventures of Tintin - culled mainly from Hergé's The Secret of the Unicorn, but also from The Crab With the Golden Claws and Red Rackham's Treasure - is wow moviemaking. It should win over the uninitiated, and work quite well for those who have already pitched their tents in the Tintin camp.