Spielberg and Jackson strike gold with ‘Tin Tin’

Spielberg and Jackson strike gold with ‘Tin Tin’
Director Steven Spielberg teams up with producer Peter Jackson to bring the storybook adventures of “Tin Tin” and his dog “Snowy” to life in the upcoming animated film “The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” The film opens Dec. 21. Paramount Pictures

“Tin Tin” (voiced by Jamie Bell) is an intrepid boy reporter, with a plume of red hair that curls up and back like a candle’s flame, and a white fox terrier, “Snowy,” who follows him wherever he goes.   When we first meet the duo, they are perusing an outdoor market of some unnamed European town, where, as luck would have it, the gleam of a model ship — a 17th century war vessel called “The Unicorn” — catches Tin Tin’s eye.   After purchasing the item, he is immediately accosted by two individuals; the first a mysterious and frightened stranger, warning him to get rid of the model before it’s too late; the second a self-proclaimed collector, named Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who attempts to purchase the ship, telling the boy to name his price.

You don’t have to be an adult to tell Sakharine’s intentions are anything but benign; and Tin Tin, who has a nose for the promise of a good story, would rather keep it to discover its importance.   Later, after some sleuthing, Tin Tin returns to his apartment to find the place ransacked, the Unicorn stolen, and the individual who warned him in the marketplace gunned down by unseen forces.

Yup, sounds like an adventure all right.

Make no mistake:  For those disappointed by “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, “The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” is a much-needed antidote.

Based on the comic books created by Belgian artist Georges Rémi (1907-1983), under the penname Hergé, the movie is a breezy, humor-fueled jaunt through vintage Spielberg territory; much more fresh and sharp than the last Indy picture.  “Give ‘em what they want” seems to be his motto, for the jokes and sight gags are in full bloom.

As if to atone for the scant action in “Crystal Skull,” Spielberg makes sure “Unicorn” packs plenty of wallop, with set piece after dazzling set piece driving the story along.

Written mostly by current “Doctor Who” showrunner Steven Moffat (a confessed “Tin Tin” fan), the movie has its challenges.   At times, the plotting is mired in intricacies that are sure to fly over the heads of younger audience members, while the subject matter and animated format suggest a picture far less adult than it actually is.  Those unfamiliar with the comic books might find the ending somewhat abrupt; while there has already been some complaint from European audiences that too many liberties have been taken with the source material.

The movie’s main strength, however, lies in its buoyancy.   Spielberg gets great mileage out of supporting characters like Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a scruffy seadog, whose constant inebriation provides a slapstick counterpart to Tin Tin’s sober rationality.  And, of course, there’s Snowy — Tin Tin’s four-legged sidekick who proves nobody needs to throw him a bone.

Those hoping for “deep and serious” will have to look elsewhere. There is just enough depth to keep the characters from being completely two-dimensional.

Like Crosby and Hope’s “Road” movies, or “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” it is meant to be lighthearted fun.

In many ways, “The Adventures of Tin Tin” represents a series of firsts for Spielberg:  His first full length motion-capture feature; his first venture into the world of 3D; and his first collaboration with Peter Jackson, who produced this movie, and is slated to direct the sequel.   Although Tin Tin’s 3D is far inferior to Martin Scorsese’s work on “Hugo,” the motion capture process has noticeably freed the director’s mind.  His enthusiasm for the material has put him into overdrive.   While it may leave you gasping for air, “The Secret of the Unicorn” is a great start to a promising franchise.

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