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Stop Motion Capture: Time to Worry About Tintin?

Mars Needs Moms bombed at the box office. Badly. Really badly. Ignoring the fact that Disney is in need of another hit, the failure of the Seth-Green-starring Robert-Zemeckis-produced motion-capture 3D CGI films raises serious questions about the future of that particular animation style. However, I wonder if it’s playing across the minds of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson as they add the finishing touches to their Tintin adaptation.

All at sea?

It’s amazing how one film can be seen to effectively “kill” an entire style. The flop of Heaven’s Gate radically redefined the American studio system, but it also arguably served as the nail in the coffin of the Western. Last year, the disappointing performance of The Princess and the Frog was cited as one of the decisions by Disney to move away from conventional animated fairytales. However, this particular style of motion capture has seemingly been on shaky ground since its inception. Despite the fact that beloved director Robert Zemeckis continues to push the format, there’s no denying that none of his productions (from The Polar Express to A Christmas Carol) ever really caught on fire.

I’m not sure whether the failure of the films can be placed on the style they adopted. Despite the fact that the movies were traditionally headlined by a big star like Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, the films themselves didn’t seem worth shouting home about. The Polar Express isn’t a gripping story for a child of any age, even before you dig into the creepiness of Tom Hanks playing every character (yeah, that won’t give kids nightmares). A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic, but it has been done to hell and back, subverted, played with, incorporated into television shows and deconstructed to the point that a straight-up retelling of the film seems tired even to the youngest child.

Is this style of animation Scrooged?

That said, there has been a fair amount of discussion around the animation style. There’s no denying that CGI can be hugely successful – I mean, Disney is still running off the proceeds of Toy Story 3 and Alice In Wonderland (and I’m not sure which was “less real” and more animated). Hell, even the type of motion capture that Zemeckis seems to enjoy using is not that far removed from what James Cameron used to bring Avatar to life, and audiences responded to that. However, there has to be some amount of doubt forming at Dreamworks as to whether Tintin is in serious trouble.

In fairness, Steven Spielberg is a proven moneymaker, to the point that branding his name on Super 8 seems to mitigate the fact that nobody knows what the hell it is. Plus, Steven Spielberg making a genuinely enthusiastic and upbeat family film is pretty much a licence to print money and – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull notwithstanding – generally has quite a pleasant outcome.

The Polar Express met a cold reception...

And Peter Jackson is the director who first impressed audiences with what his technology could do. Whenever I see a motion-captured character (Na’vi included), my mind wanders back to Smeagle as effortlessly portrayed by Andy Serkis, a performer whose star seems to be rising outside the niche of special effect shots. The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most universally beloved movie trilogy since Star Wars. So there’s no reason to fear outright, at any rate.

Although, to be honest, I am wary of Jackson – to be frank. I found The Lovely Bones quite distasteful, to be frank, and though I like his version of King Kong more than others, it still seemed a weak film. I am not convinced that his return to Middle Earth is necessarily a good thing, but I’ll wait until I see The Hobbit to make up my mind. Either way, as strong as Jackson’s filmography is, there is room to doubt.

Doesn't this sort of animation look appetizing to movie-goers?

I also wonder what American audiences will make of Tintin. I grew up with the character, so I have a certain fondness for him. I own all the books except the unfortunate Tintin in the Congo. And yet I fear that he may be dismissed by American audiences as “excessively quaint” in the same way as one might dismiss Zemeckis’ efforts. There’s something essentially European about the character and his adventures, something which might not appeal to American families who weren’t too interested in seeing Jim Carrey act his way through Charles Dickens’ most iconic work.

And all of this assumes that the animation style itself does not present too large a barrier to audiences looking for some family-friendly festive fun as the holiday season approaches. I imagine that, while Spielberg and Jackson might not be looking at the figures and starting to worry, some of the more senior executives are beginning to feel just a tad uncomfortable in their seats. We’ll see how it looks as release day approaches.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still looking forward to it. This is a childhood fantasy come true – Spielberg and Jackson on Tintin, and Steven Moffat even helped out for a bit before leaving for his dream job. How could an honest-to-goodness grown-up man-child not be excited by the prospect? It’s just the rational part of me is beginning to wonder.

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10 Responses

  1. I have three reasons to be concerned about this adaptation:

    1) Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Now, obviously I love some Spielberg classics, but he’s not exactly in the prime of his career. The last movie of his I really liked was The Terminal (although Crystal Skull, Minority Report, and Munich had some redeeming qualities). With Peter Jackson, I’ve honestly never liked any of his movies. Both men are more than capable of churning out mediocre, disappointing work.

    2) Dead eyes and the uncanny valley. Avatar showed you can do photorealistic motion capture without the characters’ eyes looking like zombies, but Avatar is literally the only movie that pulled it off. The photos released don’t really alleviate that concern.

    3) Unnecessary adaptation. There was already a cartoon tv show that was a pitch perfect adaptation of the source material. The only way this movie can be anything but redundant is to add new material (a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an incredibly underrated Tim Burton film) and obviously if the new material doesn’t work, the film won’t work.

    But… there is a glimmer of hope with the screenplay being written by Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat, and Joe Cornish. So perhaps the screenplay will be great, and the movie will turn out fantastic.

    • Yep, the writers are enough to get excited about alone. I am genuinely looking forward to Cornish’s theatrical debut, Attack of the Block. The buzz out of SxSW is amazing.

      You didn’t like Lord of the Rings? I didn’t love them, and I thought I was alone in the world.

      • When it comes to fantasy, I think you either accept the world you’re entering or you don’t. I thought LOTR was dull, but Tron: Legacy was great. Probably just a matter of taste.

  2. I too grew up with Tintin and still even read it from time to time in my native language, so I’m highly anticipating this. At the same time I’m cautiously optimistic because I can’t stand motion capture, at least the way they did w/ Polar Express w/ those creepy dead eyes. I hope they fix that problem and make it more like Avatar. I read somewhere that they’re using James Cameron’s Avatar technology and use him as a consultant for this project?

    As for ‘Mars Need Moms’ dismal box office, it could be that the story just sucks (looks that way from the trailer), so in that case, as Justin pointed out, if the script for Tintin is good, this will turn out great. And I’m w/ you Darren, how could Spielberg/Jackson combo fail? Come on!

    • I think there’s an element of that with all of Zemeckis’ films – the stories just don’t grab family in the way that anything Pixar or even Dreamworks puts out demands attention. There just seems something so academic and “safe” about the story that he attached this technology to – almost like it’s just window dressing. Truth be told, I think (I hope) that that is the major reason audience’s didn’t respond. People liekd Avatar because they connected to the story – the graphics were good, but the vast majority of the incredibly number of people who paid to see it went for the story (as hard as it is for nerds like me, wowwed by the visuals, to fathom).

      And I’m glad somebody else grew up with Tintin too. I need to reread some of those stories again.

      • Well I grew up in Indonesia until I went to college in the States, that’s why I knew about Tintin. My family and friends all love the story and the fun dialog. Amazing how a lot of the humor transcend across different cultures.

        I do hope that the filmmakers can somehow craft a story the world (especially Americans) can relate to and gravitate towards. You made a good point that Avatar, you can have all the visual feast but without an engaging story, it’s all pointless.

  3. Or maybe Disney WANTED “Mars Needs Moms” to fail, just to solidify their decision in closing “ImageMovers” studio. Personally, I’m disappointed, not necessarily because performance capture was great, but because I don’t want to be stuck with the awful designs of CG cartoons.

    I also do not understand this article and many others like it. How can something as ridiculous looking as Gollum be praised so much, while the Polar Express and Beowulf (which didn’t look THAT bad!) is shunned by the majority?

    This decade has been very rough for animation fans like myself who not only like performance capture but hand-drawn animation. I wish someone can stop churning out these identical CG toons like Megamind, Despicable Me, Gnomeo and Juliet, etc… etc…

    • Yep, it’s been a tough decade for conventional animation fans. Unless you are interested in anime, I can really only think of The Princess & The Frog as a old-fashioned hand-drawn movie that was really worth the time. Still, Winnie the Pooh is coming up, and I’m kinda looking forward to it. On the other hand, I’d argue that Pixar made the storytelling quality on these films go way up.

      I think the appeal of Gollum is mostly Andy Serkis’ voice work, but also the fact that audiences appreciate he couldn’t have been played by an actor. At the risk of being controversial, if you wanted to use Tom Hanks’ performance in The Polar Express and Jim Carrey’s in A Christmas Carol, you could just film them – they could have been made as live action without venturing into the uncanny valley. As awkward as some of these toons are, there’s a sense that they couldn’t be actually filmed.

  4. I have a bad feeling about the first images of the Tintin movie : not that I am against motion capture, not at all, in fact I was rather beguiled by A Christmas Carol, a very underrated film and the best motion-capture/3D film I’ve seen so far, it did justice to the atmosphere of the original story, the drawings of the period and is the best and most literal film that was made of that story so far in my opinion! Anyway!…Tintin is another matter altogether : the style of Hergé is so esssential to the material that I’m affraid the fans will hate it and the general public will be at a loss : there have been early animation features made of tintin, even two live action french features in the early sixties and ofcourse at least TWO television cartoon series that did almost the entire oeuvre….none of them was really satisfying. oh well, fingers crosssed but i’ll place my bets with the non believers : if this project has the full backing of madame hergé and her husband(not the creator but the brit ) some very expensive merchandise is coming our way but creatively I fear this character has been dead since 1976( and some may argue since 1960)….

    • I do need to break out those old Herge books and see if they hold up. And I’m with you over the “not entirely satisfying” bit. I think I gave up watching the cartoon as a kid, because the books were just so much better.

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