Review by Front Row Reviews: The Tintin comics are a much beloved childhood staple of millions round the world, and Steven Spielberg is the director that everyone knows the name of, able to veer effortlessly between ‘fun’ and ’serious’ films and pretty much impossible to hate. So when the combination of the two was announced there was an understandable excitement – film fans around the world were eager to see what the ‘Berg could do with such rich source material. However one thing left some fans a little baffled: Spielberg was making it using motion capture (mo-cap), the same technology that brought Pandora to life in Avatar but also, crucially, creeped out a generation in The Polar Express.
The good news is that The Secret of the Unicorn stays true to the spirit of both Spielberg and Hergé, and whilst not without problems, emerges as one of the most entertaining films from the director in years. Spielberg uses the technology to the full advantage of the story, creating set pieces that are boldly inventive in scope and execution: warring ships tip horizontally in a pirate battle better than anything with Jack Sparrow in; a motorbike chase overflows with energy as the bike begins to fall apart on a treacherous downhill road; giant cranes smash into each other in a metal crunching finale. There are moments here that capture a similar thrill to seeing a rolling bolder chasing Indiana Jones for the first time.
This is also one of his most visually inventive films, using creative transitions that feel like the cinematic equivalent of changing panels in a comic strip. Not only that but the backgrounds and details here are brilliantly realised, making particularly good use of light (never a given in digital animation which, ironically, can often come across as flat) to make some scenes nothing short of beautiful. However, the essential problem of mo-cap remains, and that is that the characters have a disconcerting, soulless look about them. Inhabiting the uncomfortable space in between standard animation and live action actors, the characters here are not fake enough to accept as animated but not real enough believe in. Instead they look like they’ve come straight from the Uncanny Valley – the term used when something looks extremely close to human but isn’t, making it uncomfortable for those watching. More than just the standard criticism aimed at mo-cap of characters having “dead eyes”, those in Tintin have dead faces. Even with the very best technology operated by the geniuses at WETA behind the film, there is still something entirely odd about the character animation, and this is not a feeling you lose throughout the entire film.
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