The Adventures of Tintin is the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel that Steven Spielberg might have made if he hadn't felt the need to keep Shia LaBeouf on the payroll. In a rollicking, breezy motion-capture animated romp, Spielberg & Co. have adapted the comic book character Tintin in a way that avoids all that worry about killing stuntmen and all that fuss about obeying the laws of physics.
In this world, datable to the mid-1950s thanks to the presence of a Jeep, a World War II-vintage tank and a Triumph TR3, the freelance journalist and his intrepid dog Snowy are well-known figures with an eye for trouble. And being modestly famous doesn't keep them out of danger.
One of the great conceits of the Herge comic book on which this is based is that Snowy, a white wire-haired fox terrier, is usually a couple of clues ahead of his master. Not being able to talk, Snowy has to wait for Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) to figure out that the model sailing ship he bought from a street vendor has a hidden clue in it, a clue to the lost treasure of that very ship — the Unicorn.
A conniving professor type (Daniel Craig) wants the model. And before Tintin can figure out why, bullets are flying and he and the dog and a sea captain (Andy Serkis) with a serious weakness for drink are on the run. Daring escapes from a freighter, a seaplane, a stranding in a desert and a chase by tank will conjure up fond memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the funny way the dog is used brings to mind Wallace and Gromit.
The trio of Brits who scripted this ensure that the Belgian Herge's character becomes much more British and flippant.
"Mrs. Finch," Tintin informs his landlady, "a man's been shot on our doorstep!"
The biggest contribution by co-writer Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) might have been landing his pals Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the voices of matching Interpol inspectors who help Tintin in his quest.
The gunplay might be plentiful, but the oaths are goofy and mild ("Great snakes!"). The bursts of drunken ineptitude from Captain Haddock and the action beats that remind one of Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones' greatest hits don't obscure what is, at its heart, a ripping good adventure yarn. The variations on well-worn gags — Tintin faking his way through piloting a plane with "I interviewed a pilot, once" — are sure to make you grin.
Spielberg, with producer Peter Jackson, push the animation beyond its Polar Express origins and into something livelier, although the faces still lack the plasticity one might like out of this art form.
But this opening adventure of Tintin make one hope that there's a future in this franchise and that there are more secrets than those of the Unicorn that the reporter and his clever little dog will plumb.