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'Tintin' has mettle, but it's hardly precious

Is the phrase “nonstop excitement” really praise? If we gasp through one exhilarating circuit on a roller coaster, do we want 30 more in a row? If we roar through five laps on a NASCAR simulator, do we long for another five dozen without some kind of breather? Director Steven Spielberg would argue that we do. His “The Adventures of Tintin” jettisons character, back story, plot, depth and emotional ties to deliver 100 minutes of beautifully shot mayhem. It’s handsome, hectic, heartless and hollow, a shiny Christmas box with nothing but glitter inside. True, the 1930s comic books by Belgian author Hergé had a helter-skelter structure: Young journalist Tintin went around the world looking for spies and secrets – and, one presumes, newspaper stories, though he never seems to interview anyone or write down details. But what works on the page seems exhausting onscreen, especially in the motion-capture animation used for “Tintin.” (The animators can make the wind ruffle individual hairs, but the zombie-eyed characters still lack humanity.) In this case, our hero (Jamie Bell) buys a model ship that draws the attention of Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who needs to find three such ships commissioned by a 17th-century sea captain to learn where that dead skipper sank treasure. Sakharine kidnaps the mariner’s one living descendant, Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), to get crucial information; Tintin and his white terrier, Snowy, rescue the alcoholic Haddock and go after the booty themselves. The movie then accelerates and degenerates into a series of chases on foot, by car, by boat and by plane, and assaults by anything from bottles to construction cranes. Spielberg and his team of writers have conflated three Hergé books into this story. The compression results in an extended and meaningless appearance by bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), who chase a kleptomaniac wallet snatcher who has virtually nothing to do with the story. (Hergé went in for such odd asides, which could make the comic books bizarrely funny.) The film’s humor comes from dialogue such as this: Haddock: “Nobody takes my ship!” Tintin: “It was already taken.” Haddock: “Nobody takes my ship twice!” Like the jokes and frenetic action, the entire movie is juvenile. Women have no place in a boys’ sexless dream of pirates and plunder; the only female who speaks is a soprano, who becomes the unwitting tool of Sakharine by singing an aria from Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette.” Most of her audience sits transfixed, while Haddock crumples in pain and Snowy writhes as if he had rabies. This lets Spielberg and company mock any snobs who might prefer high culture to, say, “The Adventures of Tintin.” The movie’s mayhem tests the boundaries of a PG rating: Apparently, children will not be disturbed if motion-capture villains are shot or thrown to computer-generated sharks. Similar action earned a PG-13 for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the Spielberg movie this most closely resembles. Be encouraged – or forewarned – by that.

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